Module 5: The Case of the Snotty Cats

Housing for Health

If you were a cat in a shelter, how would you prefer to spend your days while waiting for a new home? Think about the surrounding environment – is there constant noise from people talking, dogs barking, metal doors clanging shut? How about the size of your house – is there space to walk, stretch out, get away from the litter box? Can you curl up in a soft bed or retreat to a hiding area to feel safe? Does the housing environment support good physical and mental health, or does it cause stress, compromised welfare, and ultimately illness?


A stressed cat hiding underneath newspaper in a small cage
A stressed cat hiding underneath newspaper in a small cage

Ensuring that animal welfare principles are met is a critical role for all veterinarians. Shelter veterinarians must address the welfare of sheltered dogs and cats because welfare directly affects their health. The ways in which sheltered animals are handled, cared for, housed, and managed during their stay in a shelter influence the incidence of disease and thus become central to a comprehensive shelter medicine program.

The Five freedoms for animal welfare

One way to evaluate animal welfare is by considering whether shelters provide the Five Freedoms for the animals in their care. The Five Freedoms served as the framework for the best practices described in the original ASV Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters published in 2010. These 5 principles provide what conditions must be met to avoid a negative welfare state; i.e., what conditions must be met for animals to survive. The assumption is that good animal welfare results when the negative welfare states are minimized.


  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: By ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
  2. Freedom from Discomfort: By provision of appropriate shelter and a comfortable resting place
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, Disease: Through prevention, diagnosis, and treatment
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: By provision of adequate space, proper facilities and the company of the animal’s own kind
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress: By ensuring conditions and treatment that avoid mental suffering

The FIVE DOMAINS of animal welfare

For animals to have good quality of life, it is necessary not only to avoid negative experiences, but also to provide the animals with positive experiences in order to thrive. The Five Domains model goes beyond the Five Freedoms by emphasizing achievement of positive welfare through satisfying an animal’s nutritional, environmental, physical and mental health needs, and having opportunities for choices of environment and interaction with people and other animals. The Five Domains model serves as a tool to assess an animal’s quality of life based on the balance between compromised welfare (negative experiences) and enhanced welfare (positive experiences). The practices described in the 2022 edition of the ASV Guidelines are grounded in the Five Domains framework, with the intent to help shelters achieve positive well-being so that each animal can thrive, not just survive. 


Adapted from Table 1 on page 2 of the 2022 ASV Guidelines


The 2022 ASV Guidelines for animal housing build upon the Five Domains and evidence from studies performed in shelters.


  • Wire-mesh bottoms or slatted floors are UNACCEPTABLE for primary enclosures for cats.
  • Cages or crates intended for short-term temporary confinement or travel are UNACCEPTABLE for use as primary enclosures.
  • Individual adult cat housing that is less than 8 ft2 (0.75 m2) of floor space is UNACCEPTABLE.
  • Primary enclosures MUST provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural adjustments (e.g. turn freely, easily stand, sit, stretch and move head without touching top of the enclosure).
  • Primary enclosures MUST provide sufficient space for cats to lie in a comfortable position with limbs extended, move about and assume a comfortable posture for feeding, drinking, urinating and defecating.
  • Primary enclosures MUST provide sufficient space for cats to sit, sleep and eat away from areas of their enclosures where they defecate and urinate.
  • Primary enclosures MUST allow for hiding, scratching, climbing, and perching.
  • Cats MUST have litter boxes large enough to comfortably accommodate their entire body.
  • Primary enclosures SHOULD contain a hiding space and contain a soft resting place that is elevated off the floor
  • Multi-compartment enclosures SHOULD be provided for the majority of cats housed in the shelter

The Eight Animal Welfare Principles

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has adopted 8 principles to guide development and evaluation of animal welfare.


  1. The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition, and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals, is consistent with the Veterinarian’s Oath.
  2. Decisions regarding animal care, use, and welfare shall be made by balancing scientific knowledge and professional judgment with consideration of ethical and societal values.
  3. Animals must be provided water, food, proper handling, health care, and an environment appropriate to their care and use, with thoughtful consideration for their species-typical biology and behavior.
  4. Animals should be cared for in ways that minimize fear, pain, stress, and suffering.
  5. Procedures related to animal housing, management, care, and use should be continuously evaluated, and when indicated, refined or replaced.
  6. Conservation and management of animal populations should be humane, socially responsible, and scientifically prudent.
  7. Animals shall be treated with respect and dignity throughout their lives and, when necessary, provided a humane death.
  8. The veterinary profession shall continually strive to improve animal health and welfare through scientific research, education, collaboration, advocacy, and the development of legislation and regulations.

Fear Free Principles

Fear Free is a program that teaches veterinarians how to create an environment in their hospital practice that diminishes fear, anxiety, and stress in both their patients and clients. Many of the principles of this program can be applied to the shelter environment to create a safer and less stressful experience for the dogs, cats, and staff. Here are some of the principles that you learned in the Fear Free Certification program applied to dogs and cats in shelters, particularly with regard to creating a fear-free living environment.


  • Understand how patients experience the shelter environment.
  • Create Fear Free housing for each animal in the shelter.
  • Distinguish between the special species needs of cats and dogs in the shelter.
  • Identify issues causing patients to experience fear, anxiety and stress in the shelter.
  • Implement protocols to respond to fearful, anxious, and stressed patients in the shelter.
  • Understand how anxiety and medical problems overlap, including the impact of long-term stress on a patient in the shelter.
  • Use a considerate approach and gentle control handling.  Choose basic gentle control handling techniques that minimize stress for your patients in the shelter.


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Integrating Veterinary Medicine with Shelter Systems Copyright © 2020 by University of Florida is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.