URBANA — Do cats benefit from stimulating surroundings and attention from the humans around them? You bet.
University of Illinois researchers, who set up a unique environment for 35 cats involved in a study, affirmed what some cat owners already know.
"Cats are so intelligent," said Amy Fischer, a UI animal-sciences professor. "They benefit from an enriched environment."
In many research facilities, enclosures are small and lack much enrichment for the animals, Fischer said.
The research setting she and her colleagues created for cats was in a temperature-controlled pole barn and included a two-level open structure, natural light, a giant climbing tree, furniture, toys, scented objects and lots of hiding holes.
And that was just indoors. The cats also had a quarter-acre outdoor space to enjoy.
"We knew we needed to increase the quality of life for research animals beyond what a traditional environment would be," Fischer said.
The cats in the UI study were used to test an injectable contractive called GonaCon as a potential alternative to invasive spay and neuter procedures done to prevent pet overpopulation, said Fischer, who was the lead investigator in a study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.
Initially planned for five years, the study was discontinued early because of its low success rate in preventing pregnancies in the first year, she said. The injections were effective in only 30 percent of the cats that got them.
But there were still takeaways about the impact of elevating the quality of life for research animals, according to Fischer.
During the one-year study, her students played with the cats and trained them to feel comfortable with exams and such procedures as ultrasounds, she said. Most of the cats became comfortable going into the exam room, though a few didn't get past their anxiety about it, she said.
"A lot of people think you can't train a cat," Fischer said. "But you positively can train them."
The emphasis on socialization, enrichment and training seemed to produce very adoptable and adaptable cats, according to the study.
Fischer said all of the cats were adopted afterward, and they made the transition easily to their new homes.
That's a much more favorable outcome than some of the cats faced before. All 35 cats had been drawn from animal shelters, and some likely would have wound up euthanized if they had remained in those shelters, she said.
"Part of our big picture is we wanted to involve cats that did not have favorable outcomes," Fischer said.
There were also some takeaways for cat lovers, and Fischer encouraged considering the kinds of enrichment and surroundings cats need to keep them active and stimulated.