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Study Suggests Simple Cage Modification to Reduce Stress in Hospitalized Cats

Linda Lombardi

The veterinary clinic or hospital can be a stressful place for cats, full of strangers and strange noises and sights. A recent study suggests a simple and inexpensive way to reduce this stress by use of plexiglass sheets hung over the front of the cage.

In the study, thirty pet cats were placed in one side of two connected cages (the starting side, left or right, varied randomly) for 70 minutes. There were three conditions: open cage vs a cage-front covered by clear plexiglass; open cage vs opaque plexiglass; and clear vs opaque plexiglass. Observers calculated stress scores from the cat’s behavior during the first and last 15 minutes and recorded how much time was spent in each cage.

The cats who were most stressed in the first 15 minutes spent significantly more time in the cage that blocked the most incoming stimuli: they preferred either type of plexiglass to the open cage, and preferred opaque plexiglass to clear.

Coauthor Kyle G. Mathews, DVM, MS, DACVS of North Carolina State University says the idea behind the study was to find an affordable way to make clinics less stressful, while still allowing a full view of the patient. The opaque plexiglass is “like looking at the cat through a pair of sunglassses,” he says, which is much better than other inexpensive possibilities. “When you put a towel over the cage, or you give them a hiding box, you can’t see the animals.” When staff need to open the door to look at the hidden cats, that adds stress; if there’s a problem, staff might not notice in a timely fashion.  “They may have IV lines, and that makes giving them a hide box difficult, because they could get their lines tangled up,” he adds.

Other possibilities are more expensive. For example, louvered windows, such as those used for privacy in conference rooms, would probably work. “You’re looking down at an angle and can see the cat, but the cat looking straight out can’t see the room,” he says. “But these are very expensive and have to be custom made.” In comparison, inexpensive plexiglass cut to order can be bought fairly cheaply and all that’s needed is to attach hook and loop fastener strips to hang it from cages.

If you’re wondering why not a one-way mirror, they ruled that out immediately for good reasons. “A one-way mirror only works if there’s light on one side, and dark on the other. So the person in the dark room can see the person in the light room, but the person in the light room can’t see the person in the dark room,” he says. “So we’d need the light in the cage with the cat and the room would need to be dark.”

While they may be a start, barriers won’t solve all the problems that stress cats. In particular, while plexiglass sheets block light (a 74.4 percent reduction for opaque and 13.9 percent for clear), they do little to block noise (only a 4.5 percent reduction). Although no one has specifically studied the effect of noise on cats, it’s almost surely a problem, especially in an echoing stainless steel cage.

“Eventually, if people don’t want to rebuild a room for cats, we may need to design a cage that has insulation around the outside of it, but still stainless inside that you can clean,” he says. “But noise reduction is going to be a more expensive alteration. So this was our first attempt at looking at, is there something relatively cheap that a practitioner could use to retrofit their clinic that would make it feline friendly.”

Further research also needs to be done in a real hospital setting: this study was done in a special room, with video of the sights and sounds of a veterinary inpatient ward projected onto a screen. But in the meantime, the results suggest that it’s worth trying and doesn’t appear to have any downsides. “The indication is that it probably is helpful, especially in the most stressed-out cats,” he says. “It’s not going to hurt them – they’re not going to move away from it, there was no indication that was the case.”

Board-certified veterinary behaviorist Margaret E. Gruen, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine at North Carolina State University and a Fear Free Certified Professional, agrees that this is worth trying, noting that odors, separation from owners, lack of hiding places, and sounds of people talking and monitors beeping are all stressors for cats, making hospitalization and recovery more difficult for them as well as increasing morbidity. They may refuse to eat or be hesitant to use the litter box. And anxiety is often difficult to differentiate from pain in cats. Looking at ways to mitigate these stressors while still being able to easily observe feline patients, especially when they are ill or recovering from procedures, benefits both veterinary teams and the cats themselves.

“The cats, and their people, will appreciate it,” she says. “And having happier cats in the hospital is a win for everyone.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.

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