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Care: Pen/cage set up

With mental wellbeing in mind, what do we need to consider?

Pen/cage set-up

There is a huge variety of accommodation provided in homing centres, often depending on current thinking in various countries and on available resources. In the UK, single housing with a designated sleeping area and a larger exercise area is preferred; in the USA stainless steel veterinary cages are often used and in many countries, cats are kept in multicat rooms or pens. However, there is a basic arrangement that ensures cats’ needs are met. The assumption in CFH is that we should strive to house all cats singly or in pairs where the cats are clearly bonded to one another and benefit from being in each other’s company (this has to be true for both individuals of the pair), as shared accommodation (group housing of unfamiliar cats) adds a significant burden of stress to cats that are already in a strange and challenging environment. This is a long-term goal for many homing centres but unrealistic for others, so there are details here of how you can minimise distress in multiple cat housing too.

Cat Portals

Installing portals between two existing cat cages is an inexpensive way to update single cage cat housing. It benefits cats by keeping food, bed and litter separate and allowing cleaning and daily care with minimum disruption.

For more information see:

Single cat housing

You should ensure that every cat has the following:

  • Make sure there are hiding places for the cat to escape from all the strange sights and sounds; the cat may even benefit from the front of its pen/cage being covered
  • Make sure the cat’s litter tray, food and water bowls are positioned as far away from each other as the space will allow
  • Provide the cat with two bedding blankets and, when the top one becomes soiled, put the underneath one on top to maintain a familiar smell and add a new one underneath
  • Make sure that you keep the noise down and ensure that cleaning and feeding is done on a predictable schedule so the cats can anticipate when things might happen
  • Make sure you have privacy screens to block the view of cats facing each other
cat pen setup

Cats require the basics of food, water, litter tray, bed and hiding place as an absolute minimum, all as far apart as possible

This is part of a pen at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home which has steps leading down from a sleeping pod to an area where all resources are placed as far apart as possible


Useful resource:

See this paper regarding the benefits of a hiding place:

The effect of hiding enrichment on stress levels and behaviour of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) in a shelter setting and the implications for adoption potential


This hiding place in a pen has been made out of an old cat carrier

A blanket or towel can be draped over the cage door to give the cat an opportunity to hide


Useful resource:

Here is an example of the pen set up in Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London, UK, where the pens are full height and exclusively indoors.

Battersea cattery pens are designed to include multiple levels and areas. This allows cats to have different ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ zones and means that everything they need can be presented in a cat-friendly way in separate locations. The bed area is towards the back of the pen (i.e. a quieter core location), scratching post towards the front of the pen (pen periphery), options for hiding places (i.e. up high, on the ground), water, food and litter trays in separate locations.

When a cat arrives in a cattery pen, they are given food and water and left to get used to their new environment.  During this settling in phase, staff focus on the basics of feeding and ‘spot’ cleaning to respect the cat’s sense of smell and to allow them time to create a familiar scent within the pen. If the cat is hiding, staff can also use this cleaning and feeding time to observe the cat. The aim is to minimise disruption and allow the cat to settle.”

Evy Mayes, Feline Welfare Advisor, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

Cattery pen set up before a cat arrives

Battersea use sheets and blankets to divide the pen and give the cat more hiding opportunities

Battersea give their cats a choice of hiding places


Useful resource: 

Noise as a stressor

Common sounds such as human voices, metal doors/cupboards closing and cleaning metal items all potentially have an adverse effect on cats’ stress levels in a homing centre environment. In a 2021 study published in the Animal Welfare Journal: ‘The effect of animal shelter sound on cat behaviour and welfare’ (BH Eagan, E Gordon & D Fraser), the biggest factor affecting cat stress was exposure to dogs but noise inside and outside the cats’ pens/cages matters too. The authors suggest reducing noise levels and maintaining sound intensity around 60 dB, but do you know how to measure this?

There are many validated apps available, Bailey Eagan (one of the authors of the paper) recommends:

For iOS – NIOSH Sound Level Meter (EA Labs)
For Android – Sound Meter Pro (Smart Tools)

Tips to reduce noise include:
Rubber bases on stainless steel bowls
Soft closures on doors
Rubber or sound deadening pads on metal cage
Soft voices at all times (think ‘library’)
Reduce through traffic
Awareness of sound while cleaning

Single versus multiple housing

Many countries and individual organisations have group housing for the cats in their care. Although under certain environmental conditions, some cats have the capability to live amicably alongside other cats, the cat is primarily a solitary survivor and living in close proximity with other cats while under close physical confinement puts each individual under a lot of extra strain, being in an unfamiliar environment with a number of cat ‘strangers’.

Cats are put under a lot of strain having to share resources with strangers

If you do need to keep your multiple cat housing until the funds are available to make the necessary changes, here are some suggestions for improvement:

  • Ideally try to keep your groups constant, anecdotally six appears to be a reasonable maximum number in any one pen but this is dependent on the size of the unit
  • If you can, ensure you only mix familiar cats or those with a proven positive history of cohabiting. This might help to reduce distress
  • Ensure there are sufficient resources (litter trays, food bowls, water bowls, bedding, scratching posts, hiding places, high perches) for all the cats to have at least one place to go without competing with each other. Use the whole three-dimensional space of the pen by fixing shelving, ramps, runways and hiding boxes at higher levels so cats can take themselves out of any conflict situations

If you have group housing ensure you use the whole three-dimensional space of the pen so cats can remove themselves from conflict situations


Useful resource:

Here is a link to a review of the literature on the impact of multiple housing

Finka LR, Ellis SLH, Stavisky J. A critically appraised topic (CAT) to compare the effects of single and multi-cat housing on physiological and behavioural measures of stress in domestic cats in confined environments. MBC Veterinary Research 2014 10:73

See also pages 94-98 on Communal Housing from ISFM Guide Feline Stress and Health

Ideally, every person (or organisation) that takes care of unowned cats should aspire to keeping them in single cat pens. Here’s the Bermuda SPCA’s story of their experience of moving from group to single housing in their shelter:

“Within 3 months of becoming a Cat Friendly Homing organisation we have moved from group housing to singles and social pairs only. We previously had a large room with an outside verandah within which we routinely held up to 40 cats. As a result of our Cat Friendly Homing training we decided to build separate indoor/outdoor units. We have increased the square footage available for each cat from 7.5 to 96!!”

Mitzi has been in the shelter for years and only started to show her full potential when she went from group to single housing.

SPCA Facebook page


> Care: Cat Friendly Interaction

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