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Let’s Talk: Are Cage-Free Cat Shelters a Good Thing?

Cats living outside cages sounds lovely, but a recent experience revealed serious problems.

Meghan Lodge  |  May 11th 2016


We recently adopted a cat from a no-kill, cage-free cat rescue group. Besides a nasty experience with the adoption manager (which I’ll write about soon), I came away with a number of concerns. I’ve volunteered for and adopted from a traditional animal shelter, and the thought of a cage-free rescue has always sounded alluring; however, my experience gave me a harsh reality check that makes me doubt that cage-free cat shelters are a good thing at all.

The first thing I noticed about the rescue was the smell. The odor reaches your nostrils well before you can even see a cat. The cats are grouped into community rooms according to age, size, and temperament. The Humane Society of the United States recommends not exceeding a group size of 10 to 12 cats in order to “allow effective monitoring and reduced risk of conflict as well as decreased infectious disease transmission.” (This comes from the 2010 Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters from the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.) However, this particular rescue houses almost twice that number in some rooms. When we visited with the cat we considered adopting, I was unable to count the number of cats in the room. This also made it difficult to spend one-on-one time with our candidate because of other cats vying for our attention.

Deuce was very unhappy at the rescue, probably because he was very sick. (Photo by Meghan Lodge)

Deuce was very unhappy at the rescue, probably because he was very sick. Photo by Meghan Lodge

The room itself was spacious, although not quite enough for the number of cats in the room. HSUS recommends 18 square feet for each cat, as well as adequate access to resources. The food and water bowls were mostly in one area. Two of the walls were lined with large plastic containers mounted in PVC pipe filled with litter for the cats to use. There didn’t appear to be a litter box alternative for cats who might suffer from joint or other mobility issues. The urine odor was so strong partly because some of the cats had been marking scratching posts, perches, and the walls, even though they were all spayed/neutered. Many of the cats in each room also appeared to be suffering from some type of upper respiratory issue, as they had squinting, runny eyes and sneezed frequently.

Deuce's paws were cracked and had raw spots when we brought him home. (Photo by Meghan Lodge)

Deuce’s paws were cracked and had raw spots when we brought him home. Photo by Meghan Lodge

The rescue, like many, is run mostly by volunteers, which is a blessing but also a curse. While it’s wonderful that people volunteer to help homeless cats, there’s a lot less accountability for volunteers than for employees. If an employee doesn’t show up for work or does a poor job, that person will face punishment and/or termination. Employees are often required to have some type of experience and undergo specific job training. At the shelter I volunteered for, volunteers were not permitted in the designated quarantine areas. Employees not assigned to that area were also not supposed to enter. This lowered the risk of spreading illnesses.

Cats were also separated by cages and given their own separate food/water bowls and litter boxes. Not only did this further lower the risk of spreading disease, it also lowered resource guarding and gave shelter staff the opportunity to better evaluate each cat’s behavior and health. Obviously, this is very difficult, if not impossible, in a cage-free cat shelter.

Deuce lounging on a bed in his new home. (Photo by Meghan Lodge)

Deuce lounging on a bed in his new home. Photo by Meghan Lodge

The cat we adopted, who we named Deuce, seemed very grumpy and afraid on his exit evaluation. We gave him some time to adjust to his new surroundings, but soon it became apparent something wasn’t right. Although he was still eating and drinking well, his litter box use wasn’t consistent. He also was drooling, squinting, and was entirely too lethargic. The rescue had labeled him a lazy/grumpy cat, but I wanted to have him checked for an underlying cause for his issues.

Sure enough, the vet diagnosed Deuce with a severe upper respiratory infection. He had a lot of inflammation and a fever. Thanks to good vet care, he has since returned to “normal,” playing with his new cat toys and exploring his new surroundings.

Deuce enjoying some sunshine and dirt with my daughter. (Photo by Meghan Lodge)

Deuce enjoying some sunshine and dirt with my daughter. Photo by Meghan Lodge

Perhaps the rescue I visited is on the bad end of the spectrum when it comes to cage-free facilities. While I’m sure the intentions of the people running it were pure, the facility is lacking in many areas.

Have you ever visited a cage-free cat shelter? What was your impression? Tell us about it in the comments below.