Better boarding solutions for veterinary practices: Get them out of jail!

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May 21, 2012

On the most basic level, animals need a safe, secure, and physically healthful environment. And going forward, I believe the emphasis will shift to providing housing that is psychologically healthy, reinforces positive behavior, and provides for a balance of social interaction and a secure environment.

Click here to view a photo gallery of housing solutions and study the list below to set goals for pet housing in veterinary practices:

  1. Provide the best possible health and care for all the animals within the facility
  2. Provide a disease-free environment
  3. Provide appropriate exercise areas
  4. House animals in a manner and environment which is more conducive to creating a positive client experience
  5. Provide training for animals with behavioral problems
  6. Provide rehabilitation for animals with medical problems
  7. Create a more pleasant environment for clients, animals, and staff
  8. Control noise and odor
  9. Provide a safe and secure environment for animals and staff
  10. Minimize unnecessary handling of animals
  11. Provide housing that minimizes stress for the animals.

Housing happy dogs
Although it may seem impossible to overestimate the damage a bored, stressed, uncomfortable dog can do to its enclosure, practices are finding that programs involving training, exercise, and social interaction help minimize the need for “bullet-proof” habitats. Studies show that traditional cages and runs are extremely stressful and promote undesirable behavior, such as barking, lunging at gates, and soiling the enclosures. From a design perspective, this means an evolution from the traditional prison-grade construction and jail-style rows of kennels to a variety of environmentally enriched housing units that are more like “real-life” rooms.

Generally, the natural environment for our four-legged companions is the home.  And practices that have built real-life rooms report that the animals are calmer, less destructive or aggressive, quieter, and less likely to soil their living space.  Of course, if the animal is to be conditioned not to soil his home, then he must have an outdoor space that he can use appropriately.

Housing happy cats
Unlike the stress behaviors that dogs demonstrate, stress in cats can be more difficult to see. Stressed cats become withdrawn, and it is easier to overlook their discomfort. That’s why it is essential to create environments that are calming and natural.

You know there are lots of practical reasons to keep stress low: Stress inhibits immune function.  Stressed cats are more difficult to handle. And it's important to your clients that they know their cats are receiving the best possible care.

And a lot of the stressors that cats experience are very avoidable. Here are some concrete steps veterinary practices can take to keep cats' happier.

> Provide your feline patients with enough space. Small, square metal cubes just don't cut it.  Overly limited spaces deprive cats of any defensible space and don't even allow enough room for a cat to fully stretch. Studies show that each cat needs 11 square feet of space to reduce blood cortisol levels, or about twice the space that has traditionally been allotted. This is especially important for boarded cats, because cats need a three-foot separation between their litter and their food.

> Keep the noise down. How? Separate cats from dogs. House cats in quiet spaces away from commotion. Use extra insulation in your wards and ceiling materials that dampen noise. And make sure your cat boarding facilities don't sit near sources of low frequency vibration such as air handling equipment.
  
> Improve the airflow. We have measured airflow within a cage and demonstrated that even if air is circulated in the room, the air exchange rate within a cat cage can be almost negligible because the cage represents an eddy within the overall airflow of the room. 

> Make cats feel safe by offering them a way to block their view. Simply putting a shoebox in a cat cage can significantly lower a cat’s stress level. In your hospital, you may need to keep cage fronts open, but consider a partial visual block such as a suspended hand towel on the cage front to make cats more comfortable.  
  
Snyder Manufacturing, Inc. is working on a cage that encapsulates the best of the research that is being done to improve the welfare of individually housed cats.  The cage incorporates a half frosted door to give cats a more defensible space, a roomy compartment with a bench that is actually large enough for cats to lie on, and horizontal bars which have been demonstrated to provide more psychological comfort than vertical bars. Glass openings in the backs of the cages allow them to feel less claustrophobic, even when they are against the wall.  Finally, the cage door incorporates a quiet latch that can be operated with one hand.  As a bonus, this cage is beautiful! 

Overall, veterinarians have a tendency to view cage housing in a hospital as a pragmatic solution. And while the changes being made to cage environments may seem minor, but they can and do improve the experience for the animals. And lower stress can help you help them more.