Shelter Designs for Cats

2001

By ARQ Architects

Curious and eccentric, agile and coy, with beauty and grace.

Cats are entertaining and quiet, great pals all and all. They are neater, smaller and quieter than their canine associates. But all too often, these glorious creatures receive second shrift in shelter design.

In the past, the common solution in shelters was to cage cats. They fit in a cage easier than dogs, but go equally nuts when left in one for too long. Today, we frequently see two other design approaches in new shelters:

  1. A couple of "display" catteries in the main adoption lobby, with all other cats sequestered in the rear, more or less treated as "inventory."
    Or alternately,
  2. All cats are in open catteries, with no isolation space, resulting in many sick cats and often very smelly rooms.

Option one neglects the "inventory" cats, adversely affecting their stress level and making many cats that much more difficult to introduce to a group when their chance comes to move out of the stock area.

Option two creates a shelter that at first glance seems fine, but reputation for poor health may follow and certain cats that do not tolerate a group may be stressed, withdrawing and becoming asocial.

In designing cat spaces, arrange a way to show the cats off! Give cats room to move, stretch, pose, watch and play.

A successful approach for enhancing adoptions, promoting great cat behavior and providing healthy shelter management is to have a mix of rooms. A range of room sizes (no cages except for cats under medical treatment) accommodating some single cat rooms, lots of doubles, triples and several with space for 6-8 cats is a great mix. Staff enjoy playing matchmaker, establishing compatible pairs, triples, etc that just might end up going to a new home together.

Add steps to climb, shelves to sit on, bay windows for sunbathing. These touches enable adopters to see cats in their best light and it's what people crave to see in their own home if they invite a cat to share their life.

Design the rooms with smooth surfaces. Create climbing structures, window sills, etc. to hold soft cushions that are easy to toss in the wash/dry cycle and then put back into the space after cleaning. Ask industrious volunteers to sew up covers, keeping cost down. Use color and hang pictures on the wall to give variety for little expense.

Providing space in the rooms for cat sitters is fantastic. The shy cat may eventually warm up to people if a volunteer can just sit in the same room with the cat, reading a book or doing a quiet activity until the cat's curiosity overcomes his shyness. Next thing you know your shy cat has a permanent home. With cats, keep it simple and fun. Keep one litter box per cat and try to design the room with elements that hide the litter boxes.

Another design feature for the layout of cat spaces is to create a vestibule or group of rooms off a shared hall. A group room makes it easier to clean without having a cat escape and easier for volunteers to be with the cats without staff help. Introducing a new cat can be accomplished by putting the new cat in a vestibule overnight so the new one can check out the others and vice-versa.

Providing some cat feature spots, like a screened in porch with rocking chairs (just add grandma with knitting basket) or a tall space with windowsills at several levels will ensure your cats have front stage. These rooms may present more challenges to staff for cleaning, or reaching a cat perched on a high shelf, but they can do so much to allow cats to entertain and have fun with each other and their visitors--they are well worth the extra effort.

If you aren't too sure how well staff and/ or your ventilation system is working to keep the rooms fresh and clean, invite a non-cat lover friend over and ask for a sniff check. You will get an honest answer. By staying open to the non-cat person sensitivity you may more likely win a convert for someone on the brink of deciding whether a cat is right for them. Ventilation systems are just as important for cats as for dogs. Fresh air, (100% circulated from the outside) where at all possible, allow rooms to stay fresh smelling and help to avoid numerous airborne illnesses common to cats.

Good policies of hand sterilization before handling cats will minimize carrying an infectious disease from one cat to the next.

In summary, don't shortchange the cats when designing your shelter. Disease issues, unwanted smells and behavior are just as much problems for cats as dogs. Good air ventilation, ability to filter litter dust from the air and varying the size of spacing will pay off in healthy cats and long term adoptions. Just give your cats a chance to perform and you will get the audience you want coming through the door. The design elements described above are truly lifesavers for cats waiting to be adopted. New sheltering for cats cannot afford to ignore these basics for the life and health of each crafty cat in your temporary care.

About ARQ Architects: Partners Paul Bonacci and Lucinda Schlaffer founded ARQ Architects in 1985. The firm has specialized in designing innovative space for animals since its inception, with an emphasis on enriching life rather than simply sustaining life for companion animals. ARQ is most noted for its pioneering design of Maddie's Pet adoption Center at The San Francisco SPCA. On the firm's drawing boards are new prototype facilities to address the needs of rural shelters, small scale adoption centers and a new model for veterinary care design.

Paul Bonacci is a 1979 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and Lucinda Schlaffer received her degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1979.  Both partners are active ADPSR members (Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility) and are members of ecological/technology professional interest groups within the American Institute of Architects.