Virginia Tech Students Stroll with Shelter Cats
August 30, 2023
Over 3 million cats enter shelters in the United States each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Julianna Scardina, Class of 2024 in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM), knows that the stress of living in a shelter long-term can negatively affect cat behavior and that behavior is often a reason cats aren’t adopted as quickly. So, she joined a research project with Erica Feuerbacher, an Associate Professor in the School of Animal Sciences, who had partnered with the Montgomery County Animal Care and Adoption Center, to see if they could find a solution.
Just like humans and their hobbies, animals can relieve stress by engaging in enrichment activities.
“Dogs living in animal shelters are often taken out of their kennels for walks and playgroups, while cats typically remain within the confines of their kennel for the duration of their time at the shelter,” said Allie Andrukonis, postdoctoral research associate in the School of Animal Sciences within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and one of the researchers in the study.
“Cat patios or ‘cattios’ are unrealistic for some shelters with limited space and funding,” Scardina added.
Recognizing the potential impact of time spent outdoors on feline welfare, behavior, and adoption prospects, the student researchers set out to examine whether training shelter cats to use strollers could be a cost-effective solution.
“Despite the increasing popularity of strollers and backpacks for cats, no study has actually assessed the impact of taking a cat in a stroller or backpack on cat behavior,” said Feuerbacher. “Our study will be the first to assess that, as well as if training the cat ahead of time to hop into the stroller impacts the number of stress-related behaviors we see.”
“Training might help us minimize the stress of being in a stroller while increasing their chances of adoption by participating in outings.”
Walking a cat in a stroller might seem silly to some people, but Scardina explains that a stroller is an excellent choice to balance enrichment and the safety of the animal and the environment.
“Some owners may not be comfortable taking their cats outside for a number of reasons like stray animals, parasites, or they don’t want their cat roaming and hunting wildlife,” Scardina explained. “And not all cats tolerate leash walking, so utilizing a stroller can allow pet and owner to get outdoors with less worry because it’s enclosed but easily portable.”
The research team observed the behavior of cats and kittens over several days to determine their overall well-being and any changes after a 15-minute walk in the stroller. Some cats also went through stroller desensitization training prior to walks.
“We have a coding system that documents different behaviors to determine the cat’s comfort level,” Scardina explained. “If they begin to display behaviors like yowling or crouching, we make sure to remove them from the environment and get them comfortable again.”
Observations were made when cats were in their kennels, while training, and, using some do-it-yourself techniques, during their time in the stroller.
“It’s been neat to see the students come in and interact with the cats,” said Jennifer Henry, a staff member at Montgomery County Animal Care and Adoption Center. “The handling from people helps the cats gain more confidence and receive and give more attention.”
Conducting applied research like this means working with the unique characteristics of the environment.
- At the shelter, every day can be a unique experience for a cat which can affect their behavior and willingness to take part.
Cats naturally have different personalities and most at the shelter have unknown backgrounds that affect their behavior.
Some cats were even adopted before the end of the study.
Are strollers the cat’s meow?
It’s too soon to tell if strollers are a solution, as Scardina and the team are still analyzing the data -- but it’s looking hopeful.
“Preliminary data show that cats can be trained to ride in strollers,” said Andrukonis. “Additionally, we’re seeing that riding outside in the stroller is not stressful for the cats and may increase affiliative or friendly behavior toward humans.”
Taking a stroll around the shelter wasn’t just enriching for the cats in the study, it gave the students valuable experience in applied research.
“I used to have a little tiny fear of cats,” said Yhakira Gray, who is using the project as part of a Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) internship. “This experience has helped me with cat handling experience, and I hope to keep growing that.”
“I not only got research experience, which I haven’t had before,” said Yasmeen Gomez, also an MAOP scholar. “It opened up my eyes on how I want to incorporate research and animal behavior into my vet experience if I get into vet school.”
Yanran Sheng said what everyone was thinking, “I just wanted to pet more cats!”
The team hopes to continue their work by, first, implementing a volunteer walk program at the shelter to decide if stroller walks have any impact on adoption rates, and second, diving deeper into the suggestion that walking a cat can increase the human-animal bond.
“We see this research as the first step for many other research projects that can explore the impacts of outings on shelter cat adoption rates,” said Feuerbacher.
“The outcome of this study also opens the door to exploring how cat owners might share some of the ‘walking’ and emotional benefits associated with walking dogs,” said Buechner-Maxwell, “such as increased exercise, and in particular, increased opportunities to experience more social interactions and stronger connections within their communities.”
For now, they encourage anyone interested to visit the wonderful cats at Montgomery County Animal Care and Adoption Center, and even consider taking one out for a stroll.
The research team
- Scardina joined the study as part of the 2023 Summer Veterinary Research Program.
- Yasmeen Gomez, Yhakira Gray, and Yanran Sheng, undergraduate students from the School of Animal Sciences, and Andrukonis were also part of the research team.
- The students were mentored by Erica Feuerbacher, associate professor of applied animal behavior and welfare and creator of the study, CALS; and Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, VMCVM professor and director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships (CENTAUR)
- Staff at the Montgomery County Animal Care and Adoption Center gave access to space and fuzzy research participants.