Enrichment and Stress Reduction for Sheltered Dogs and Cats: Targeting the Five Senses

Written by Jennifer Toof

Working in animal sheltering, we are all faced with combating the levels of stress experienced by the animals in our care. Animals are subjected to a wide array of psychological stressors, including loss of control of their environment, unpredictability of daily shelter activity, and long periods of confinement. Lack of funding and staffing, and housing a variety of species can make the situation overwhelming and seem out of your control.

Unfamiliar housing and neighbors, exposure to sounds of other species and daily shelter activity, arousing odors, and uncomfortable temperatures or substrates are some of the sources of environmental stress for sheltered dogs and cats. This video illustrates just how loud, unpredictable, and (at the same time) boring the majority of a sheltered cat’s time can be. It’s no surprise that they can become stressed and develop behavior and medical problems that make them less adoptable.

But there’s good news! Sometimes even the smallest change can be the difference for the animals in your care, and you can do it with little effort and on a shoestring budget.

Evaluating the environment

Evaluation of the facility for stressors and triggers that can affect behavior is the first step. I believe that taking a sensory approach to welfare and enrichment is important, along with the ability to empathize with an animal (Nielsen, 2018). Having an understanding of how cats, dogs, and humans obtain and process different sensory information is vital to designing the most effective ways to minimize stress and discomfort at all stages of their life in the shelter.

I invite you to have a walk-through and explore your facility from the animal’s point of view, letting the five senses be your guide.

Throughout your evaluation, note the following:

  • Animal traffic, including pathways used to move animals into and throughout the facility
  • Human traffic, both staff and visitors
  • What the animal sees, hears, smells and feels (tactile) while in a particular room or specific cage
  • Environmental factors in each individual kennel space, such as temperature, lighting, and temperature
  • Look for stressors and triggers that affect behaviour

Your evaluation walks need to cover all periods of the day: morning, evening, or weekend, so you can identify varying changes with traffic, staffing, visitors, lighting, and other contributing factors. The more people who tag along on the walks, the more thorough the observations will be.

Once you have done this you can now map out your facility to chart items as low, medium, or high stress. This makes it easier to prioritize addressing the contributing factors.  Also, when prioritizing your list, be sure to recognize things that you can change right away—even if they are less of a priority in terms of stress reduction, they’re a great place to start.

Arrival and intake

Implement low-stress handling techniques for your intake exams,  using the least amount of restraint necessary for the shortest duration to perform the desired task. We often feel rushed to get the job done, but with a little patience (and a lot of treats), the intake exam will be less stressful to you and the animal. Use your voice, and speak using soft tones. Use the animal’s name if known, and use familiar simple verbal cues like “sit.” Many dogs will respond to verbal cues and may relax more when you speak a language they are familiar with.

Towels and blankets are your new best friend! These are something we generally have an abundance of, and they can be utilized in so many ways—from covering carriers, exam room tables, floors, and scales, to gentle restraint (Weiss, Mohan-Gibbons, and Zawitowski, 2015).

While in your care

The animals in your care must be offered a regular daily routine, where they can make meaningful choices in their environment and can predict when things will happen.  This will give them an opportunity to feel secure and in control. We must not disturb the choices the animals have made in their environment. There is no such thing as cats “trashing their cages”—they are simply expressing meaningful choices that they prefer for their environment in order to adapt and cope. Support the animals’ ability to cope with challenges by offering choices such as hiding, perching, and a variety of toys.

If your housing units are small, make sure to provide opportunities for animals to engage in natural behaviour such as standing, walking several steps, sitting, or lying at full-body length.

Portalized cat cages

Portalized cat cages

According to the ASV Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, the minimum recommended square footage per cat cage is 11 square feet. Since replacing existing caging to meet the minimum standard can be a very expensive project, portalizing your caging for both dogs and cats is a cost-effective way to provide more space, and separation of litter, food, and resting areas. Portals can be installed between two existing cages to create a larger living area. Portal kits also come with doors that can be closed for ease of cleaning. With the help of volunteers, we have installed the portals in all 11 of our animal centres.  For dog areas, think about adding an indoor-indoor guillotine type door between kennels.

Implement spot cleaning.  If you use spot cleaning protocols, the animal can remain in their space, with most of their familiar items such as blankets, hiding box, and toys. The animal has some control over their environment, which leaves them with a sense of familiarity. Leaving the same blanket retains the familiar feel and their own scent, and keeping them in the same enclosure retains their field of vision, as well as auditory and olfactory input. Spot cleaning is also ideal for group housing or large rooms or runs.

We use full cleaning procedures as little as possible because full cleaning strips the animal’s environment of all familiar sensory input. If animals are relocated to a completely new cage with a whole different view, vantage point, and unfamiliar neighbors, this can result in frustration and stress. This is a link to our spot cleaning protocol for cat cages.

Stress reduction: Targeting the five senses


Something entertaining to watch

Something entertaining to watch

Start by reducing unpleasant visual stimulation. Avoid housing animals facing each other, with continuous visual contact. Minimize the exposure of visual contact of different species.   For example: Avoid walking dogs through cat areas and housing birds in cat rooms. To decrease visual overstimulation, especially for very reactive dogs, use inexpensive barriers like a curtain or blanket hung on the kennel door.

Cats should be provided with a hiding box, or a towel should be hung on the cage door. Hiding is the best coping mechanism cats have to deal with stress. A day or two with a place to hide will help the new cats adjust to the animal shelter environment.

Introduce pleasant, calming visual stimulation. Add visual interest to animals’ rooms, such as aquariums, mobiles, a television, or a bird feeder outside the window. Support circadian rhythms by providing day/night cycles with no or minimal lighting during the sleep hours. Natural light helps support normal circadian rhythms, therefore rooms with windows are preferable. 

dog with a kongTaste

Recognize that changes in diet, residue from cleaning products, medicine added to food, and even the taste of your facility’s water all contribute to stress.  Minimize changes in diet, use highly palatable foods when providing medicine, and choose a disinfectant that has little or no residue. For example, use vinegar to clean windows.

Offer food just before, during, and after a stress-inducing experience. This can include approach by a stranger, entering and exiting a kennel, placement onto an exam table, restraint, toenail trim, injection, and taking a rectal temperature. Choose foods that are highly palatable and appropriate for that species in order to offer a positive emotional experience. The association with you and the food may also help the animal be more cooperative on subsequent interactions. Have an abundance of varied treats available!

A little food goes a long way—choose things that will last a little longer than a cookie, such as a stuffed Kong, a popsicle stick or tongue depressor with a little canned food or peanut butter,  or smear it directly on the wall (if you don’t mind a little clean up afterwards).


An animal’s sense of smell is one of its most powerful senses.  Research suggests that animals housed in shelters are significantly influenced by the scents and smells in their environment (Wells and Hepper, 2005).

To decrease stress from scents, start by reducing or removing noxious or stress-inducing smells. Choose cleaning products with little or no scent or odor. Have staff and volunteers wash their uniforms at the shelter, so their clothing all smells the same and you can be sure they are all using unscented laundry detergent. Discourage staff and volunteers from wearing perfume or scented personal products, as well as avoiding residual cigarette smoke.

When making decisions about housing, be sure to keep different species separate from each other. This is important because exposure to a predator’s scent can be a chronic source of distress for a prey animal. Alternatively, the predator is taunted by the scents of prey animals but cannot exhibit the normal behaviour of hunting. Keep intact males and females within a species separate to decrease frustration resulting from being unable to respond to hormonal signals.

Adding scents can also help. Our shelter uses products such as Adaptilä and Feliwayä in a diffuser in every room, and as a spray on intake. These synthetic pheromones are claimed to have a calming effect. Although there is little strong evidence that pheromone diffusers really do have these effects—and it’s impossible for us on the ground to tell, because we use them as part of a multifaceted approach along with many other interventions, they do no harm, so we continue using them and hope that some conclusive evidence either way comes along soon.

Alongside these pheromones, we use different scents such as lavender and chamomile as a way to provide low-stress enrichment for our dogs—see Wells and Hepper (2005) for a discussion of these.


Sound has a profound effect on health and behavior. In general, long, slow continuous sounds decrease activity levels, while short, rapidly repeated sounds tend to increase them (Kogan et al., 2012). Sounds like slow, rhythmic classical music can be soothing and pleasant, causing a decrease in respiratory and heart rate. Sounds like the approach of a caretaker around dinner time or raised human voices can be stimulating, even aversive, causing increases in heart and respiration rate.

Cats are very sensitive to noise; they can hear frequencies we cannot hear. Some sounds might be disturbing or painful to them even though they seem pleasant to us. Noise made by caretakers and visitors may be jarring to cats, so make a conscious effort to keep noise down.

The simplest thing you can do to reduce or utilize sounds and auditory stimuli in the environment (and its free!) is to use a quiet voice. There is no need to shout to others if ambient noise levels are kept low, and unexpected sounds can easily startle or upset animals. If possible, replace squeaky kennel doors or extremely loud devices such as fans, cleaning tools, door buzzers, etc.

As much as we all like rocking out to Metallica, it’s best to refrain from playing it in animal areas! A better option is to use a white noise machine, which cancels out some of the surrounding shelter noise, or better still to play appropriate calming music. Research has suggested that music has a relaxing effect on dogs, increasing the amount of time spent sleeping and resting—but some genres are more effective than others (Bowman et al., 2017). Another study found that cats responded most positively to music that has been specifically designed to be in the frequency range and with similar tempos to those used in natural communication (Snowdon, Teie, and Savage, 2015).

To decrease ambient noise, you can modify or renovate the physical environment.  Sound-proofing and use of sound-absorbing materials can reduce the overall volume level in your animal centre.  Since barking accounts for much of the noise in shelters, reducing it can significantly decrease the decibel level. This PDF from our shelter explains how to build your own sound abatement panels.


cat on a scratching postStart by reducing unpleasant tactile stimulation. Keep changes in surfaces to a minimum, for example, pay attention to slippery floors or tables, carpet, or gravel that may frighten an animal that is not accustomed to walking on them. Exposure to new surfaces may also result in injury if an animal slips and falls while trying to avoid them. Lay down towels on any stainless steel table tops to provide traction while performing examinations or other procedures. Avoid extreme temperature fluctuations to ensure the animals’ comfort. Avoid exposing the animal to surfaces that are vastly different from their body temperature.

Introduce pleasant tactile stimulation in the environment by providing soft, comfortable bedding that is appropriate for the species, size, health status, and age of animal.

Be sure to use a consistent cat litter substrate as part of routine daily care. If space allows, offer scratching posts for all cats, and a variety of environments within a habitat, including resting areas and play areas with different surfaces.


Since implementing stress reduction strategies in our animal centres, which includes providing cat cabins for hiding, pheromones, and spot cleaning, the incidence of upper respiratory infections in our resident cats is literally non-existent. The chances of a cat developing an upper respiratory infection is directly linked to their stress levels, as stress suppresses the immune system (Wagner, Kass, and Hurley, 2018).

Offering meaningful choices has been the key to providing a low-stress and enriching sensory experience at our shelter. Although we can’t change everything at once, even the smallest change can be impactful. After all, as this video illustrates, many sheltered animals’ lives are boring and stressful, and it’s up to us to do what we can to keep them physically and psychologically healthy while they’re in our care.

There are lots of resources online to help you get ideas and learn more about enrichment, behavioural health and environmental needs, as well as infection control and disease management. At the ShelterHealthPro website, for example, you will find lots of DIY projects, current research, and best practises for sheltering animals.

Stay tuned for the second installment of Enrichment and stress reduction for sheltered animals: Targeting the five senses in the next issue!


Bowman, A.J., Scottish SPCA, Dowell, F.J., & Evans, N.P., (2017). The effect of different genres of music on the stress levels of kennelled dogs. Physiology and Behaviour 171, pp. 207-215.

Kogan, L.R., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., & Simon, A.A., (2011). Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 7:5, pp. 268-275.

Nielsen, B.L., (2018). Making sense of it all: The importance of taking into account the sensory abilities of animals in their housing and management. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 205, pp. 175-180.

Snowdon, C.T., Teie, D., & Savage, M., (2015). Cats prefer species-appropriate music. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 166, pp. 106-111.

Wagner, D.C., Kass, P.H., & Hurley, K.F., (2018). Cage size, movement in and out of housing during daily care, and other environmental and population health risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease in nine North American animal shelters. PLoS ONE 13:1.

Weiss, E., Mohan-Gibbons, H., & Zawitowski, S., (2015). Animal behavior for shelter veterinarians and staff. UK:Wiley-Blackwell

Wells, D. & Hepper, P., (2005). The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of dogs housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 91:1-2, pp.143-153.