Peer-reviewed Portalmania for the win!

January 30, 2018

What happens when a respected scientific journal publishes a study suggesting that portalized cat housing will help keep down the rate of respiratory illness in shelter cats? Peer-reviewed Portalmania, of course!

That’s just what happened when Million Cat co-founder Dr. Kate Hurley, Dr. Denae Wagner, and Dr. Philip Kass teamed up to research the impact of housing and other risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease (URI) in 18,373 adult cats in nine North American shelters. The study was published January 2, 2018, in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Which is pretty awesome for the cats, since URI presents many challenges in animal shelters. It’s been linked to multiple viruses and bacteria, as well as to stress and crowding. Stress is a particularly big factor for this disease because one of the main viruses that causes it, feline herpesvirus, is directly activated by stress. That means cats can come into the shelter already infected. Even if disease control if perfect but the cat gets stressed during her shelter stay, she’ll still end up sick. The impact goes beyond just making cats sick. It can suck up shelter resources to treat, and put a strain on relations with the local community when cats in the facility get a reputation for poor health.

These and other complicating factors create a precarious balancing act for shelters. As the authors wrote:

[P]revention of pathogen transmission and support of behavioral health are both essential to limit URI in shelter cats, but must be balanced with one another. Rigorous isolation prevents exposure but may create stress for cats, while enriched environments and social interaction may reduce stress but increase disease transmission. A successful strategy to mitigate shelter URI must serve these two potentially conflicting goals while simultaneously preparing and presenting cats for adoption—a significant challenge in the resource limited environment of many shelters.

Now, respiratory pathogens are going to be an inevitability in animal shelter populations, but it turns out having cats actually get sick doesn’t have to be. The authors discovered that URI risk varied between shelters by as much as 50-fold! Interestingly, the factors associated with the lowest rates of URI were more reflective of keeping cats happy than keeping them away from every last germ. So what do the study findings suggest shelters can do to keep their adult cats happier and healthier?

Cage floor space that exceeds 8 square feet was associated with significantly lower rates of URL than cages with less floor space in the study. Many older and even some more recent models of cat cages provide for less than 8 square feet, and may not be suitable for reducing disease and stress in sheltered cats.

Don’t move them around. Moving cats in and out of their cage (such as for cleaning) or between cages was associated with a higher risk of URI during the cats’ first week in the shelter.

These two findings are particularly Portalmaniacal, because, as the authors write:

Typical single-compartment cages often require daily removal or transfer of the cat for cleaning and care. Historically, this smaller single-compartment type housing has been commonly used in intake areas where cats spend their first 7 days in the shelter, while larger housing is reserved for cats in publicly accessible adoption areas. Replacing housing throughout the shelter with double-compartment cages or with larger walk-in units that facilitate cleaning with a minimum of disruption and handling for the cat may help reduce URI.

In other words: Portalize!

So, what increased the incidence of URI? Two factors are surprising, and require some examination and context:

Providing hiding places led to an increased incidence or URI. This counter-intuitive finding may have been because five of the six shelters in the study that provided hiding places for their cats had cage sizes well under the 8 square foot ideal – in fact, their cages were smaller than 6 square feet, which was further reduced by the introduction of a solid structure to create a hiding area. In cases where very small housing must be used, using curtains or pinned towels to let the cat hide may be preferable. Hanging a towel over a raised bed is another option in a smaller cage. (Compare figure 3 with figure 4 for an example.)

The intranasal vaccine was associated with a higher incidence of URI. This is unexpected, as an intranasal vaccine would be expected to provide better immune response in a shelter environment than other types of vaccine. Why would that be? “It could be that vaccine reactions appeared clinically identical to URI and were added to shelters reported URI rate,” the authors wrote, “while vaccine failed to protect against more severe disease. Considering the increased risk found in this study, and the variable results of other studies, URI rates before and after use of an intranasal vaccine should be tracked to ensure no inadvertent adverse consequences and that the additional cost is justified.”

What made no difference either way?

Shelter intake numbers had no impact on the incidence of URI.

Housing cats in mixed-age populations also had no effect on the incidence or respiratory illness.

And the best news is, the frequency of viruses was no different at the time of intake in shelters with low versus high rates of URI, so we know it wasn’t just that the shelters with less illness were lucky enough to have healthier cats coming in.

The complete study is available at the link below.

Wagner DC, Kass PH, Hurley KF (2018) Cage size, movement in and out of housing during daily care, and other environmental and population health risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease in nine North American animal shelters. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0190140.

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