Training is Purrfect Enrichment for Frustrated Shelter Cats

Training shelter cats leads to more contentment and better health.

Enrichment is important for shelters cats, like this cat lying down in her box
Photo: Esin Deniz/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The study, by Nadine Gourkow and Clive Phillips (University of Queensland), tested the effects of training sessions on cats that were frustrated when they arrived at an animal shelter. The cats in the training group became more content and were healthier compared to the cats who just experienced normal shelter conditions.

Prof. Clive Phillips says,
“Confining a cat into a small cage after it has been roaming free, in someone’s home or as a stray, is a huge challenge for any cat. A significant proportion of them develop serious behaviour problems and one of these is extreme frustration, manifested by trying to escape or turning their cage contents upside down. 
“We can help these cats adapt by training them to do a task, taking time with them and encouraging them to have trust in human contact. Then they will be happier, healthier and more likely to get adopted.”
The study took place at the Vancouver branch of the BCSPCA. Cats were assessed within an hour of arriving at the shelter. Out of 250 cats that were assessed, 15 were deemed frustrated and were eligible to take part in this study.

Signs that the cats were frustrated include pacing, meowing, tipping out the contents of food bowls and litter trays, and trying to escape the cage by biting the bars or putting their paw through. Cats were defined as frustrated if these signs were apparent more than 10% of the time.

8 cats were assigned to the control condition and experienced normal shelter life for the next ten days. 7 cats were put in the training condition. Four times a day, they had an individual 10-minute reward-based training session with the experimenter.

The training took place in a room next door to the room with the cat cages. Initially the cats were carried there, but most soon learned to walk to the room with the experimenter once she let them out of their cage.

The cats were given two minutes to explore the room, then the clicker training session started. The aim of the training plan was to teach them to do a hi-five.

The cats were first conditioned to the clicker and then shaped to do a hi-five. Once they had learned the behaviour they were taught to do it on cue (“Give me five”).  Whiskas Temptations cat treats in tuna flavour were used as the reward.

Throughout the study, stool samples were collected from cats in both the training and control groups. Video cameras were also mounted in the cat cages so that behaviour could be monitored, and evaluations were made for 10 minutes every hour. The researcher also noted whether the experimental cats were friendly or not at the end of each training session.

Training is good enrichment for cats, like this kitten on a cat tree
Photo: Crystal Alba/Shutterstock/ZT

The behavioural results showed that cats in the training group were more likely to be content than those in the control group, who remained frustrated for longer. Signs of contentment included normal grooming, lying on their side in a relaxed posture, rubbing the head or body on things in the cage, and sitting calmly at the front of the cage.

Over time, the control group of cats became apathetic, typically after 6 days of trying to escape. They did not eat as much or groom themselves properly, and spent a lot of time sleeping.

The stool samples showed that cats in the training group had higher levels of Immunoglobulin A, which can protect against upper respiratory infections. In line with this, the control group was significantly more like to get an upper respiratory infection during the time of the study.

The training activity involved several aspects that may have been beneficial to the cat – time out from the cage and time spent with a human as well as the training itself. It could be any of these, or the combination, that caused these results.

The sample is small, but it represents all of the frustrated cats that were available at the shelter at that time. Further research with a larger sample is needed. The authors point out that cats may also become frustrated after being at a shelter for a while, so potentially many more cats could benefit.

These results are promising and suggest that training is good for frustrated cats. Shelters could incorporate this kind of enrichment into their regular practice. Cat training might be an attractive program for volunteers.

If you like this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

Would you like to try training a cat?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Gourkow, N., & Phillips, C. (2016). Effect of cognitive enrichment on behavior, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as frustrated on arrival Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 131, 103-110 DOI: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2016.07.012

More cat stories:
Interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat
Your cat would like food puzzle toys
Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss)

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