Housing Cats in Shelters

Written by Jessica Hekman, DVM, MS

Appropriate housing is essential for animal wellbeing in shelters. Without clean, comfortable, spacious housing, no amount of enrichment will be sufficient to maintain low stress levels. An animal may receive enriching interaction with staff, trainers, or volunteers for an hour or more a day, but will be in a primary enclosure for more than 20 times that.

The Association of Shelter Veterinarians provides Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, which include excellent recommendations for appropriate housing for dogs and cats. The suggestions below are based on that document. While few shelters currently adhere to all the recommendations made below, these recommendations are the minimum necessary for truly humane group housing of animals and should be a goal for all shelters.

General recommendations

Housing for any shelter animal should be clean and safe: easy to sanitize, no sharp edges that could injure the animal, and no gaps or broken latches that could allow the animal to escape. Animals should not be housed in temporary enclosures like airplane crates for more than a few hours while longer-term housing is located. Tethering is not an acceptable form of housing. The space provided for an animal should, at a very bare minimum, allow the animal to stand at full height, stretch at full length, take a few steps, and lie down comfortably. Animal housing areas should have dark times and quiet times. Light should not be left on for 24 hours straight. Music should not be played loudly and should be turned off at night.

While these recommendations may seem common sense, they may be overlooked in shelters that are overcrowded and therefore at the limit of their housing and staff resources. In many cases it may fall to the behavior consultant in a shelter to speak up for an animal that is in unacceptable housing, bringing attention to that animal, who may have been placed in that situation “temporarily” and be waiting days, weeks, or months for a better housing option that never quite appears.

Enclosure recommendations

Cat housing can be a serious problem in shelters. Traditional 2-foot by 2-foot cages are far too restrictive to house cats comfortably, and frequently result in highly stressed animals.

From Bourgeois H, Elliot D, Marniquet P, et al. (2004) Dietary Preferences of Dogs and Cats.1

From Bourgeois H, Elliot D, Marniquet P, et al. (2004) Dietary Preferences of Dogs and Cats.1

Minimally, a cat’s enclosure should provide at least 2 feet of triangulated space between food, sleeping area, and litter box. A minimal goal for floor space should be 11 square feet, though more is preferable. Note that this space need not be all on one level: Cats enjoy multi-level housing. Additional horizontal space can be created in some enclosures by the addition of an elevated area for perching, with space underneath to hide. In-cage furniture can provide additional enrichment and may include hammocks, raised beds, and feral dens, among other possibilities.


Cats may be highly stressed by daily removal from their cage for cleaning. Cat enclosures should be “spot cleaned,” meaning that the litter box is cleaned and dirtied areas are scrubbed but the entire enclosure is not emptied and scrubbed daily. Removing a cat’s smell from the enclosure is stressful for the cat.

A double-sided enclosure (side by side or top and bottom) is ideal for cats, to give them a space to hide during cleaning, and to allow separation of food, bedding, and litter box. Traditional 2-foot by 2-foot or 3-foot by 3-foot cat enclosures can be converted to modern double-sided enclosures through the addition of “portals”—holes in the connecting sides to convert two separate enclosures into a single double-sided enclosure. Importantly, this conversion will mean that each cat has more space—it does not mean that two cats share a double-sided enclosure. UC Davis maintains information about purchasing and installing portals, and can also answer questions about how to approach the challenge of a reduced number of enclosures in a shelter.

Cats should not be housed at floor level; their stress levels are significantly reduced when they are up high. Floor-level enclosures may be converted by the insertion of portals in the floor/ceiling to top-to-bottom “condos” to allow cats the opportunity to sleep up high, with the litterbox in the floor-level section. Alternatively, floor-level cages may be used for storage and animals kept only in higher-level cages. Note additionally that research by the ASPCA suggests that cats housed at eye level are viewed longer by adopters than cats housed on lower levels.

Food and bedding should be placed in one portion of a double-sided enclosure and the litter box should be in a separate portion. Cats should be provided with a bed, preferably with high sides, and a hiding place. Cats who lie in their litterboxes are attempting to find a way to hide from the stress of the shelter in the only bed with raised sides available to them, and can be redirected to more appropriate bedding easily if it is provided. Stressed cats require space to hide! A simple cardboard box, or a blanket over the front of a cage, can reduce a frightened cat’s stress enormously (and may only be needed for the first few days in the shelter).

Note in the following image that the cat is housed above floor level, has two rooms (for ease of cleaning and for separating the litter box from the living spaces), and has perches and a comfortable bed.

Cat housing in shelter

Group housing considerations

Many cats do well in group housing in shelters. This is dependent on the individual cat; cats that bully other cats for access to resources such as food, sleeping places, or the litter box should be housed singly. Cats that spend much of their day perched high to avoid other cats should also be housed singly. The behavior consultant may be the only person in the shelter with the expertise to read the subtle body language of a cat that is not enjoying group housing. Sometimes the only sign of a bullied cat is repeated observations that the cat never actually touches the floor of the enclosure!

Group housed cats need more space per cat, not less, to alleviate difficult social interactions: a minimum of 18 square feet per cat. They should be provided with at least one comfortable perch/bed and food bowl per cat plus one extra, to reduce competition for resources. Litter boxes should similarly be plentiful, and placed in multiple locations to make guarding of multiple boxes at once challenging for a bully cat (though, again, any cat who attempts this should be removed from group housing promptly). Smaller groups (three to five) cats are easier to manage than large groups. Particularly, large groups may be difficult to oversee for signs of disease (e.g., did all cats finish their food? To which cat does a lump of soft stool belong?).

Group housing is not appropriate for kittens under the age of 20 weeks, for reasons of infectious disease prevention. Kittens should be housed with their litter.

Some shelters have successfully converted old single-sided dog runs into multi-cat housing for two or three cats per run. Perches should be installed in such facilities.

In the following image, note the variety of perches and litter boxes in the group housing room.

Cats in shelters


Many of the housing recommendations made in this document may seem out of reach for some shelters. It is important to remember that, when providing ideal housing is challenging, it can be approached as a long-term goal after careful planning. Many shelters have been operating above their true capacity for humane care for years or decades, and change may be difficult, particularly as change may require realizing that the animals in the shelter’s care are not currently cared for humanely. Part of the animal behavior consultant’s job is to help shelters realize that there is a way forward, and that improving the housing situation of animals in the shelter will have many long-term benefits, such as increased adoption rates of animals who are happier and therefore more appealing to potential adopters and decreased rates of disease and therefore of euthanasia. Housing is the basis of good animal welfare in the shelter; advocating and planning for it should be a priority for a shelter behavior consultant.


Jessica Hekman, DVM, MS, completed a specialty internship in shelter medicine and now studies the genetics of dog behavior in Urbana, Ill., where she lives with her husband and two dogs. She regularly offers online courses on genetics for IAABC. You can follow her on Twitter as @dogzombieblog or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/dogzombieblog/.