It's a cat's world. According to AVMA statistics there are more cats in the U.S. than dogs. But cats still get the short end of the stick. For decades they have been held in cages barely bigger than bread boxes, which isn't good for their health. Fortunately, there is a lot of emerging research that supports the benefits of housing felines in better, more enriched environments.
The most obvious trend is to provide more space. Cats of all sizes should be given ample room to stretch. Housing should be designed to provide at least three feet between food and litter.
Beyond the minimum, quality of housing matters more to cats than quantity. One of the biggest stressors in the shelter environment is over handling. An individual cat's risk of developing an upper respiratory infection relates to the number of times he is moved. Dividable caging allows caretakers to clean the cage without unnecessarily handling the cat.
Resting benches and hiding boxes also help individually housed cats exercise some control over their own environment. While these accessories may seem insignificant, they are really important. Cats that do not have comfortable environments are much more likely to lie in their own litter boxes.
As you think of your feline environments, imagine them with all five senses. Cats experience the sensory world acutely! Create pleasant views. Cats love to be against windows. Be aware of the negative effect of noise from outside and inside the room. Some manufacturers are already incorporating quiet latches on cage doors that prevent the clattering sound when cages are opened or closed. Offer a soft texture such as an old towel in every cage.
Airborne transmission is not the primary cause of upper respiratory infection in sheltered cats. But this fact is no excuse not to give cats access to fresh air! In most traditional housing, the air exchange inside a cat cage can be almost negligible because the cage acts like an eddy within the overall pattern of airflow in the room. Take care of your cats' finely tuned sense of smell by providing ventilated caging whenever possible. Even rolling cages can be designed so that air is pulled through each unit.
Now that we have research to support what we have suspected all along, the world of cat care is changing fast. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians Shelter Guidelines, released in 2010, sets the bar high for feline environments. Some states are updating their department of agriculture standards as well. While we can wait for mandated change, it is much more rewarding to find the inspiration behind such mandates and act in the best interest of cats now.