Creating a College-Based Shelter Cats Training Program

Written by Shlomit Flaisher-Grinberg, PhD

Every year, approximately 3.4 million cats enter animal shelters nationwide. Although about 170,000 of these cats will be safely returned to their owners and 1.3 million will be adopted, many will spend months waiting for their forever family, and more than 1.4 million will be euthanized.1 Despite the dedicated care provided to them by staff and volunteers, the stress experienced by cats at the shelter can exacerbate behavioral issues (e.g., over-grooming, aggression, withdrawal), and negatively impact the cats’ likelihood of adoption, creating a hard-to-break vicious cycle.

Foster care programs have been demonstrated to promote the physical, social, and emotional well-being of shelter cats.2 However, such programs require the recruitment, training, and retainment of committed, dependable, and available fosters.3 Can new and innovative foster programs be developed, harnessing academia as a partner in the mission to improve the well-being of shelter cats?

In 2016, we created an undergraduate college course at Saint Francis University (SFU), Pa., established as a collaboration between the Department of Psychology and several animal shelters in our region. The course, titled “Canine Learning and Behavior,” was designed to allow college students the opportunity to foster shelter dogs for an entire semester, live with them in college-approved apartments, bring them to class, and train them for obedience and agility.4,5 Since then, the course has been taught seven times, enrolling over 80 students and 24 dogs. All trained dogs successfully completed the course, “graduated from college,” and were adopted into loving homes.

Inspired by our ability to positively impact the lives of shelter dogs, we envisioned a new college course that will integrate shelter cats’ training into the academic curriculum. We wanted to provide shelter cats with socialization and human connection, while training them for tasks that will improve their lives and facilitate their adoption outcomes. The course’s set-up, which required much diligent work, is described below.

As a first step, we secured permission to house shelter cats on campus premises. We created protocols describing how, where, when, and by whom the cats will be cared for and submitted them to different divisions on campus (the Office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs, Office of Residence Life, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, etc.) for approval. With the help of the Business Office, we assured insurance coverage for our course, and with the assistance of the Office of Risk Management, we created liability agreement documents to safeguard both the shelter and the institution from accidental incidents.

Second, we established a partnership with the Huntingdon County Humane Society (HCHS), a local shelter that was willing to entrust our students and faculty with their cats. They agreed to support the course by providing for the cats’ needs throughout the semester (including crates, blankets, litter boxes, litter, toys, food, treats, and supplements).

Third, we created safety practices for students and cats. Since cat allergies are relatively common, and can be severe,6 at the guidance of SFU’s Health Center, we pre-screened all students registered for the course for cat-associated allergies. We provided masks, coats, and gloves to those with minor allergies, and alternatives (working with rats) or course waivers for those with major allergies. We identified a large campus room (guarded by two-tier doors) to serve as a “cat room,” and filled it with cat trees, cat toys, and three large kennels, equipped with blankets, litter boxes, food bowls, and water bowls. We received approval to use a specific classroom into which cats could be brought during class time and recruited trusted students to serve as course teaching assistants (TAs). The TAs were placed in charge of the cats’ safety and handling within and outside the classroom. We generated feeding and cleaning protocols, aiming to assure that the cats would be observed, cared for, and socialized with at many points throughout the day. To assess whether the cats receive balanced (sufficient but not excessive) rest versus stimulation, we purchased collar-attached FitBark monitors, which allowed us to track each cat’s play, activity, and resting time on a daily basis.7

Fourth, we aimed to prepare for unexpected expenses, and support HCHS’s commitment to provide for the cats, by securing small funds (granted by SFU) and by soliciting donations from community patrons. In this respect, we wish to thank our local Tractor Supply store (Altoona branch) which donated much-needed cat food and litter, and the Ebensburg Animal Hospital veterinary clinic, which supported us with veterinary care.

Once we created the course’s syllabus, translating psychological-based theoretical concepts to specific ethical and applicable cat-training procedures, it was time to let the cats out of the bag. Via consultations with the shelter director and following preliminary screenings (factoring in cats’ needs, behavior/aptitudes, and health status), we identified three younger (10-week-old) and three older (5-month-old) cats as suitable for the program (see Picture 1). We then transported them to campus, allowing for a week of acclimation prior to the beginning of the course. The cats were housed two per crate, with blankets, food, water, litter boxes, and some small toys.

From top row, left to right: Boomer, Uni, Beans, Beth, Velvet, and Howie.

Once the semester started, we assigned eight students per cat and spent the first two weeks of class teaching students how to interact with the cats (some students lacked this experience). The students learned how to pick up/hold the cats, how to assess their health and well-being, and how to recognize, reduce, and prevent stress on the cats.8

Much time was dedicated to the creation of a solid student-cat bond of mutual trust, confidence, and joy, established through gentle, fun, and consistent interactions (see Picture 2). At this point, students were introduced to the “class rules,” specifying that no cat will be picked up or touched against their will, that when cats go into their crates/hidden part of the cat tree, their wish to not be pulled out is respected, and that no potentially problematic behavior is allowed or reinforced, even if it seem harmless at the time (e.g., climbing into/jumping from high surfaces). Visitors not enrolled in the course (e.g., enrollees’ friends and family, potential adopters) were only permitted in the cat room under supervision. Students were also asked to instantly communicate any questions/concerns associated with the cats to the course instructor and TAs.

Left to right: Arianna with Beans; Tierney with Howie and Boomer

The next few weeks were spent extinguishing some of the cats’ old and maladaptive behavioral patterns and replacing them with new and adaptive behaviors. For instance, the association of the cats’ carrier with treats allowed us to “call upon the cats” when the carrier was placed on the floor. This helped us easily transfer them to and from the classroom (as they willingly went into the carrier by themselves), and potentially enhanced their future adopters’ ability to transfer them to and from the vet. The association of a simple towel with treats established it as “place” and allowed us to somewhat control the cats’ locations during class time. In both instances, the cats learned that treats would be waiting for them in the carrier/on the towel (demonstrating classical conditioning), and later, that getting into the carrier or sitting on the towel (and staying there), will be rewarded with treats (demonstrating operant conditioning using positive reinforcement). The association of nail trimming, ear cleaning, and teeth brushing with treats/cuddles/play time (depending on the cat’s preference) marked these activities as pleasant, and increased the chances that the cats’ future adopters will be able to repeat these actions. The association of a click stick with treats enabled students to train their cats to perform fun tricks, such as jumping through a hoop, performing figure-8 circles around their legs, or simply following (e.g., targeting). These activities provided the cats with both enrichment and physical activity. The association of a harness with treats enabled students to take the cats out of the building to explore the outdoors, smell the grass, meet new people, and enjoy nature. The extinction of the cats’ potentially problematic behaviors focused on behaviors such as biting and nibbling, which can be cute when a cat is young and problematic as they grow older. When performed, these behaviors were ignored (demonstrating negative punishment), while differential adaptive behaviors (e.g., gentle play, cuddling), were encouraged and rewarded with attention and interaction (demonstration positive reinforcement). To emphasize, all these learning experiences utilized well-established “learning methodologies,”, such as habituation, de-sensitization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and shaping. No fear-, distress-, or pain-based training practices (e.g., yelling, pulling, water-squirting, etc.) were allowed at any point or for any purpose.

The last few weeks of the course were dedicated to the exploration of the human-animal bond, defined as a “mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors considered essential to the health and wellbeing of both.”9 This included learning about animal-assisted interventions, a field that integrates animals into processes that benefit human physical, psychological, cognitive, and social well-being. Exploring the various ways through which animals can assist human-focused therapy and education, students had the opportunity to work with the cats at SFU’s experiential learning commons.10 This clinical educational facility was built as a mock hospital, enhanced with a simulated emergency room, intensive care room, patient room, maternity room, and exam room. Within this environment, students trained the cats to sit on patients’ beds, climb into patients’ lap, and provide them with affectionate and nurturing companionship (see Picture 3). These learning experiences are aligned with the new Animal-Assisted Health and Education Specialist minor and certificate program, offered by SFU to traditional students and adult learners.11

Picture 3. Trinity with Velvet.

Toward the end of the semester, adoptive families were identified for all cats, and associated paperwork was reviewed and approved by HCHS. Adopting days were scheduled, allowing the students to say their goodbyes (and the TAs to prepare the cats’ blankets/toys to take with them to their new home). Once all cats had left campus, all materials were cleaned and stored until the next course iteration.

Lessons learned throughout the semester included:

  1.      Contrary to the misconception that cats are socially aloof, all cats included in the program learned, each in their own way, to trust and enjoy human companionship, and all formed strong bonds with their students. In fact, the relationship formed between Velvet and one of her students was unbreakable, and the student adopted her at the end of the semester.
  2.           Even though the younger kittens were undoubtedly adorable, cats of both age groups received the same amount of love, affection, and dedication from their students.
  3.      Despite the false belief that cats are slow learners, all cats in the program were found to be very trainable, as they were able to learn not only various behaviors but also some cool tricks.
  4.      Although stress was seen in the few days that followed their arrival, the cats habituated well to their new environment, and demonstrated signs of comfort and relaxation in the cat room, classroom, and around campus.
  5.           The collar-attached FitBark monitors indicated balanced play, activity, and resting time (with higher percentages of play displayed by the younger cats).
  6.      All students enrolled in the course, the course TAs, and me (the course instructor) truly enjoyed the cats’ presence on campus, and the many opportunities for interaction that they offered.

Unexpected issues included the following:

  1.      One cat (Howie), became sick throughout the semester and had to be treated by trained veterinary staff. The diagnosis of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) led to his hospitalization, which took him out of the classroom for prolonged periods. Although his students were sad to lose the opportunity to work with him, they understood the need to prioritize his health, and dedicated their efforts to the other cats in the program. Having a local vet who helped us with the diagnosis and provided preliminary treatment was instrumental in the management of Howie’s health.
  2.      One cat who was originally chosen for the class drastically changed his behavior once on campus and in the cat room. From a slightly timid yet friendly cat, he turned into an unhappy, frightened, and defensive cat who refused to be touched or to exit his crate and spent the day sitting in the far corner of his crate hissing and growling. Within 24 hours his behavior escalated, suggesting that a sensitization had occurred. We acknowledged his discomfort and took him back to the shelter where he regained his calm demeanor. We believe that it is important to screen the cats both before and after their arrival to campus, in order to alleviate distress, if and when it has developed.
  3.           Cleaning procedures were abundant, and included constant swiping of the room, recurrent replacement of blankets (every two to three days), frequent emptying of litter trays (at least twice a day) and the weekly washing of all blankets, towels, and rags (by me, at a local laundromat). These activities required much time on behalf of students, the TAs, and the instructor, as well as the arrangement of a large stock of blankets and towels, laundry materials, and laundromat funds. In the future, we will consider purchasing a small washer/dryer combination to facilitate this process.
  4.      We started the semester placing the cats’ water and food in bowls on the floor by their litter. We quickly learned to prevent contamination by spatially separating litter from food and water. In addition, once we started using crate-mounted bowls, we were able to significantly decrease the amount of mess created within the crates.
  5.      We started the semester with regular collars. It didn’t take long before one of the younger cats managed to get his collar caught on a crate corner. Although we were able to release him with no harm, we immediately switched to quick-release (snap opening) collars and are wholeheartedly recommending the use of these collars.
  6.           Throughout the semester, all cats needed to receive certain vaccinations as well as other treatments (e.g., dewormers), which required an experienced handler and access to a refrigerator. Luckily, I had the required experience to administer such treatments, and we had the funds to purchase a small refrigerator installed outside the cat room. We thus recommend securing funds for unexpected expenses.
  7.           The three younger cats had to be spayed/neutered in the middle of the semester. Although we were able to time the procedure into the break, transportation to and from the shelter was required (and provided by the shelter manager and myself).
  8.      In the beginning of the semester, the cats spent the nights in their crates, but as the semester progressed, we started to leave their crates open throughout the night. Since the younger cats were more rambunctious, it took us much longer to feel comfortable leaving their crates open at night. Given that older cats are more likely to display behavioral issues and are harder to adopt out, we plan to include older cats in future course iterations. We believe that this approach will help us mitigate both issues #7 and #8.

Future directions include the repetition of the course in following years with slight modifications. Given our demonstrated ability to ethically care for the six cats included in the course, we would like to slightly increase this number, to eight or 10 cats per semester. We would also like to offer the course twice a year, thus impacting a higher number of shelter cats in need. In addition, we would like to leverage the course toward public education. We can, for instance, use media coverage of our course to introduce our community to themes of conscious pet ownership (e.g., training, nutrition, exercise). We can also provide information about shelter animal foster program or about spay and neutering opportunities. We can encourage financial support of animal shelters/rescue organizations and discourage acts that lead to animal neglect, abandonment, or abuse. Finally, we plan to communicate information about the course to everyone who may have an interest in it. It is our hope that additional institutions of higher education will consider integrating shelter animal training experiences into their curricula and choose to impact the lives of shelter animals from within the academic classrooms.

References

  1. Kitten Coalition (2023) Increasing survival rate of kittens [online]. Last accessed 2/11/2024.
  2. Vitale, K.R., Frank, D.H., Conroy, J., & Udell, M.A.R. (2022), Cat Foster Program Outcomes: Behavior, Stress, and Cat-Human Interaction. Animals (Basel), 24;12(17):2166.
  3. Kerr C.A., Rand J., Morton J.M., Reid R., & Paterson M. (2018). Changes Associated with Improved Outcomes for Cats Entering RSPCA Queensland Shelters from 2011 to 2016.  8(6):1-28.
  4. Flaisher-Grinberg, S., & Stanton, M. M. (2020). Shelter Dogs Go to College. The IAABC Foundation Journal 18.
  5. Flaisher-Grinberg, S. (2020). Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks: Using the Academic Classroom to Improve the Adoption Outcomes of Ten Shelter Dogs. The Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 24(2):117-131.
  6. Dávila, I., Domínguez-Ortega, J., Navarro-Pulido, A., Alonso, A., Antolín-Amerigo, D., González-Mancebo, E., Martín-García, C., Núñez-Acevedo, B., Prior, N., Reche, M., Rosado, A., Ruiz-Hornillos, J., Sánchez, M.C., & Torrecillas, M. (2018). Consensus document on dog and cat allergy. 73(6):1206-1222.
  7. Fitbark GPS (n.d.) About us [online]. Last accessed 2/11/2024
  8. Mills, K. (2014) How to reduce stress in shelter cats. Maddie’s Fund [online]. Last accessed 2/11/2024
  9. American Veterinary Medical Association (n.d.) The human-animal bond [online]. Last accessed 2/11/2024
  10. Saint Francis University (2021) The experiential learning commons [online]. Last accessed 2/11/2/2024.
  11. Saint Francis University (2021) Animal-assisted health and education [online]. Last accessed 2.11.2024.

Shlomit Flaisher-Grinberg, PhD., is an Associate Professor of Psychology, Coordinator of the Animal-Assisted Health and Education Minor/Certificate, and Co-Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Minor at Saint Francis University, Loretto, Pennsylvania.

TO CITE: Flaisher-Grinberg (2024). Creating a college-based shelter cats training program. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.2

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