by K. Holden Svirsky
“Cats are jewels,” I told my family after visiting Cat Town in Oakland, California. I felt lit up, like something magical had happened in the hour I’d spent there, kneeling on the floor in the open-space “cat zone,” and later peeking into the special studios of the adoption center. I was eager to see what I’d learned from reading Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy by Zazie Todd, PhD, come to life and practice.
While chatting with Cat Town’s program manager, Dilara Göksel Parry, CCBC, I slow-blinked at a delicate black domestic shorthair—an adolescent named Thimble I immediately decided was my favorite cat. She gently yet confidently padded across the large communal space, briefly glancing my way as if I was lucky to receive even this trifle of attention from her. I was. She may have been deemed “unadoptable” within the traditional rescue model. Viewing her in a stacked cage bank would never have revealed her grace, her tranquil curiosity, her very cat-ness as an individual.
Cats experience a transformative approach to rescue at Cat Town. They have time, choices, agency, space and the care of a best practices–focused team. Magic really does seem to occur.
What is the real science behind this “magic”? Dr. Todd cites no less than 204 sources (mostly peer-reviewed journal articles) in her book, Purr. Research findings are peppered throughout, interspersed with the words of dozens of experts in the field, as well as stories of Dr. Todd’s own cats. The book is accessible, practical, illuminating (for both first-time and long-time cat guardians) and even celebratory of the historically sacred cat.
For close to 10,000 years, cats have filled the cultural history of the Middle East, as well as folklore in Asia and mythology in Europe. So why does it seem that only recently in the United States, cats are finally arriving?
Dogs are the ones featured in big advertising campaigns. In the Pet Professional Guild’s member registry, 837 dog professionals are listed, versus 239 cat professionals. There are some head-scratching contradictions in how we think about cats, which I discussed with Dr. Todd.
HOLDEN: Do you have a sense of why it may be that cats get fewer resources or less attention and consideration?
DR. TODD: I think in part it’s because people think of cats as easy pets. But it’s also in part because of stereotypes of cats as being inscrutable. Some stereotypes about cats are quite negative. Even when people love cats, they don’t understand how much they need. Cats’ lives have changed because increasingly they’re indoors … and that means they need a lot more from us because they don’t have the opportunity to go outside and amuse themselves by hunting mice or just sitting in the grass or whatever it is that they would want to do. Instead, they have this quite barren environment.
Purr doesn’t necessarily advocate for or against indoor- or outdoor-living for cats, but it does lay out the trade-offs when setting up a cat’s environment, for both safety and good welfare. Dr. Todd herself lives in a wildlife-rich area of British Columbia that includes potential predators of cats.
DR. TODD: [Living indoors-only] can be for very good reasons. My own cats are indoors. Everyone has to make the right decision for their cat and based on where they live. It wouldn’t be safe for me to let my cats outdoors, but what that means is we have to do a lot more for our cats than people would have done in the past.
This, of course, makes me think about our own human egoism, why we bring animals into our homes and how we often prioritize our needs over our pets’ needs. Dr. Todd writes, “For most cats, happiness isn’t being squished and petted for half an hour and then ignored for the rest of the day” (Todd, 2022, p. 8).
It’s not at all easy to care for shelter and rescue pets of any species. However, with the explosion of pet adoption in the past decade, resources for dog guardians are everywhere: group training classes, dog trainers and behavior consultants, dog walkers and doggy day cares, social media coverage and groups dedicated to dog enrichment and training.
DR. TODD: People just don’t think of cats in the same way. They know they have to take their puppy to a puppy class. The idea of kitten-kindy is relatively new and not very many people know about it, so it’s just a completely different set of cultural expectations for cats compared to dogs.
To help shelter cats succeed, we need to educate throughout the adoption process, and Purr should be on every shelter and rescue organization’s recommended reading list. Just as many organizations have collars, food bowls, toys and carriers for purchase, we should be pointing adopters to free and low-cost resources both prior to and after adoption. As Dr. Todd writes, “Making your cat happy is about finding out what matters to them, and is most likely more to do with how you allocate your time rather than how much money you spend” (Todd, 2022, p. 22).
Prior to adoption, when cats are in the care of a shelter and rescue organization, both time and space are precious resources. “Keeping cats indoors means that any deficiencies in their home environment are exacerbated, because the cat has nowhere else to go” (Todd, 2022, p. 19). So, it follows that when cats are in cages or tiny rooms in shelters, we must pay extra attention to how we are meeting their welfare needs.
In many (if not most) shelters, dogs are let out into play yards or taken on leashed walks. Many shelters routinely feed dogs’ meals in food puzzle toys for enrichment. And some of the most well-resourced shelters have staff trainers that work on basic manners and behavior modification for dogs. This is less often the case for cats. So, what can we do for them prior to meeting potential adopters?
DR. TODD: [Cats] would like more space in the specific area where they are because cats get quite attached to location, and the experience of coming into a shelter is incredibly stressful for a cat. So they’re not necessarily going to want to be moved to another room—they might prefer to stay where they are but just have more space there.
More space alone may help prevent triggering negative emotional states such as frustration, which, Dr. Todd points out, can present as pacing, chewing bars and otherwise destructive behavior (Todd, 2022, p. 93). In a study at the British Columbia (BC) SPCA that looked at the effects of cognitive enrichment on shelter cats who were deemed frustrated on arrival, cats required being moved from their housing unit to an adjacent room for training. If necessary, experimenters held cats under their arm, without scruffing, and carried them to the room (Gourkow & Phillips, 2016).
DR. TODD: In [most] cases, the cats were able to start walking themselves from one room to the next room where [training] was going to take place, so that’s quite a nice thing to be able to do, but, of course, that’s not going to be an option at every shelter. Training cats to go into their carrier is very helpful. One of the things that really helps is something like the Hide, Perch & Go™.
The BC SPCA’s Hide, Perch & Go™ is a multi-level cardboard box that can be configured into a dual perch/hiding spot or a cat carrier, for less stressful transport of a cat and an easier transition into their new home. It can be purchased in bundles through the BC SPCA’s website.
The choice and ability to hide is truly an essential welfare concern for cats, both in the shelter environment and in a home.
DR. TODD: We know that hiding is really important for cats. It’s their natural response to stress to be able to go and hide somewhere. Most people do not have enough spaces for their cat to go and hide. Or people see the cat is hiding and they want to force the cat out … make them come and meet a new person … or whatever it is [the cat is] trying to hide from. Actually, cats need to be able to hide, because that helps them to feel more comfortable.
Effectively educating adopters on the negative effects of flooding can be very tricky. And just as positive reinforcement–based and force-free animal trainers tend to focus on teaching an animal what to do rather than what not to do, we as organizations need to realize in our counseling that we have the ability to set up a household pet for success with the way we approach these conversations with people.
Cats need time to adjust to new environments, and setting expectations for adopters takes skill and knowledge of the individual cat. “How long will this take?” is often the “big question,” and adopters may not understand that a “slow introduction” may be 24 hours or it may be some weeks of allowing a cat to hide, unbothered. In Purr, Dr. Todd recounts her experience with her adopted cat, Melina, who hid for quite a while in a very inconvenient spot.
DR. TODD: Melina found her way into the box-spring mattress in our bedroom and hid in there. That was so annoying.
HOLDEN: Your patience, oh my goodness. The lost sleep.
DR. TODD: She didn’t feel safe to come out until we had gone to bed and she thought we were asleep. She would be at one end of the mattress working her way down, and it would shake the mattress. It was so annoying, but at least we found her. I think that happens to people sometimes. They put the cat in the bathroom and then, “Where did the cat go?” They’ve just found a really tiny space to hide because it’s so important for them.
Aside from space and the ability to hide, one of the freedoms given to cats at Oakland’s Cat Town is time. During my visit, I met Batman, a chubby-cheeked black domestic shorthair who was experiencing social frustration, resulting from not enough contact with humans by virtue of being in a shelter environment, and the less-than-desirable behavior resulting from this emotion when people attempted to leave.
Batman was very slowly introduced to new people, and was first only visited by experienced staff. He received two to three weeks of a daily play-based visit from these staff members, set up in a small room with an ex-pen divider so he could be safely enclosed on one side for litter box cleaning, feeding and care staff’s exits and entrances. Cat Town’s veterinary partners were also able to prescribe and consistently use medication to help Batman.
With this specialized setup, Batman could start playing more safely with toys, with some protected contact over the ex-pen. Interactive toy play is covered extensively in Purr.
DR. TODD: Play is really important for cats. It’s good for cats in the shelter to have those opportunities to play because it gets them doing a normal cat thing. It helps people understand positive reinforcement and that cats like to use their senses. A [shelter] volunteer might not see the outcome of [using food and toys], but they should know that it’s still helping the cat.
Volunteers are now able to visit Batman and have learned how to more safely exit without triggering his frustration. Volunteers were educated on their own body language and why to avoid sitting. This increased safety and reduced rehearsal of undesirable behavior.
Another slow-and-steady success story from Cat Town involved a quartet of under-socialized cats. One of them couldn’t even be photographed for the adoption website without hissing. The quartet currently has potential adopters, who were patiently counseled on the cats’ unique challenges. Cat Town encouraged multiple visits on different days for coaching sessions as part of the adoption process, which I asked Dilara about in a phone call some days after our visit.
DILARA: We’ll demonstrate and have [potential adopters] trial stuff that we know works. What type of play, how to give treats, what to do when the cat is hissing at you. This feeds into our case management program of post-adoption support.
We often say in dog training “slow is fast,” and this is often the case for shelter cats, too. If we can gradually make lasting, safe bonds among humans and felines, the adoption is more likely to be successful long term. The program also prepares adopters for regressions that can happen when cats are moved to a different environment. Cat Town typically will provide two to four coaching sessions for these special cases prior to adoption.
DILARA: The program has prevented a lot of problems. We get fewer returns. We reassure adopters that the cats aren’t going anywhere, and we prioritize quality over quantity of adoptions. Batman is getting a second visit today, and Thimble was adopted and is doing great.
For under-resourced shelters, those who have less time to counsel adopters or for a conversation starting point, Purr includes a convenient “Checklist for a Happy Cat” (Todd, 2022, pp. 236-239), as well as a simple bulleted chart, “Good welfare for pet cats” (Todd, 2022, p. 232). While neither are intended to be a substitute for professional help, they can be informal evaluation tools that are useful for shelter staff, volunteers and adopters to get them thinking about their cats’ welfare needs. The lists are near the end of the book, and they aren’t intended to be “TLDR” (too long; didn’t read).
DR. TODD: I wanted people to understand why these things are being recommended, because I think when you understand that, you’re more likely to do them, and you’ll think more carefully about how you’re going to do them. Each item refers you back to a chapter where you can read more.
With good training of our staff and volunteers at shelters, this information can flow naturally during counsel of adopters. We can teach volunteers and adopters how to read cat body language, adjust one’s own body language, communicate, engage in interactive play, set up the cat’s environment and learn how long to play or pet (most cats prefer high frequency and low intensity).
HOLDEN: A huge theme of your book is looking at things from the cat’s perspective. When you’re saying “short” petting sessions, is there a rule of thumb at all or a good place to start? Are we talking about 30 seconds or five minutes?
DR. TODD: You could well be talking about 30 seconds. I think it depends on the cat and their relationship with you, but for most cats in the shelter, it would potentially be very short. The main thing is to give the cat a choice.
Choice. That powerful, primary reinforcer that often gets ignored in favor of treats, attention or toys. Perhaps the “magic” is in this simple concept.
Gourkow, N., and Phillips, C.J.C. (2016). Effects of cognitive enrichment on behavior, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as frustrated on arrival. Preventative Veterinary Medicine, 131, 103–110.
Todd, Z. (2022). Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Greystone Books Ltd.
Hide, Perch & Go™. https://spca.bc.ca/programs-services/leaders-in-our-field/professional-resources/for-veterinarians/bc-spca-hide-perch-go-box/
Holden Svirsky, CTC, CSAT, is the chair of the Pet Professional Guild’s Shelter and Rescue Division and a contributing author of ThePetRescueResource.com. She is a dog behavior consultant and owns HoldenK9, LLC. Holden’s career working with animals has spanned well over a decade, including work at the San Francisco SPCA and Animal Rescue Foundation. She teaches classes, consults privately and lectures for a number of organizations.