December 13, 2016
Categories: Research, Animal Behavior

Can something as simple as more frequent cleaning of food bowls and changing of water in a shelter cat’s housing get them adopted more quickly? A study soon to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science suggests that it is.

The study was conducted in Austria, where it’s illegal for shelters to kill homeless pets for other than humane reasons (illness, injury, etc.). For that reason, cats frequently spend a year or more in shelters, where welfare and stress are prime concerns. Researchers visited eight shelters and a total of 221 cats in 36 housing units. The primary intention of the study was to see if cats, like dogs, became more likely to approach potential adopters depending on the attitudes of the shelter staff that cared for them — behavior correlated with an increased chance of adoption.

For a number of reasons explored in the published article, the authors found that staff attitudes toward the cats didn’t increase their approach behavior with strangers. Some of those reasons have to do with the different social behavior of cats as a species, as well as variations in housing and the setting in which the investigators interacted with the animals.

However, the study did identify a number of factors that make cats more likely to approach potential adopters, some of which would be very easy to implement in U.S. shelters:

[M]ore frequent provision of fresh water… and more frequent cleaning of food bowls… were related to an increased proportion of cats showing contact behaviour (with strangers).


Although attitudes of shelter staff were not related to the results of the approach test, we found some evidence that a higher frequency of care is related to decreased fear of an unfamiliar person. Additional handling was already shown to increase tolerance of handling by an unfamiliar person (Hoskins, 1995) and another study found that petting shelter cats housed in cages for 10 minutes four times per day reduced fear of humans and overall anxiety (Gourkow et al., 2014).

As other studies have previously found, more indoor space per cat and more hiding boxes reduce stress and made it more likely a cat would approach someone they didn’t know. Study authors attributed this to the fact “that a higher perceived control over the environment reduces cats’ general stress and fear levels and increases their confidence in a situation with an unfamiliar human.”

The study is currently in press; the abstract can be viewed at the link below, and the full study downloaded by subscribers or upon the payment of a fee.

Arhant, Christine, Troxler, Josef, Is there a relationship between attitudes of shelter staff to cats and the cats’ approach behaviour?Applied Animal Behaviour Science