Housing Cats and Kittens

Programs for strays need to consider housing options for cats recovering from spay/neuter surgery.

Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.

The appropriate housing of multiple cats and/or kittens is a challenge in any shelter environment, requiring that considerable attention be paid to the prevention and management of infectious disease. Even elevated stress levels can have severe health consequences. Community cat programs (CCPs) face these same challenges. Indeed, because of the large number of cats involved, the quick turnaround (Best Friends’ CCPs typically return cats within 24 hours of surgery) and its secondary nature (e.g., operating out of an office trailer), a CCP often faces additional challenges when it comes to appropriate housing.

Because no two CCPs are alike, it’s not possible to provide precise housing requirements. A program run solely out of a shelter will likely be able to take advantage of the existing facility’s capacity, as well as the proximity of the intake, clinic and holding areas. A program relying largely on volunteers transporting cats to and from clinic appointments, on the other hand, might be housing cats and kittens at partner clinics and in the homes and garages of volunteers. Nevertheless, the basic considerations for appropriate housing are similar.

The following guidelines are therefore intended to provide CCP staff and volunteers with the basics, along with references to multiple resources that address various aspects of the topic in much greater detail.

Short-term housing

CCPs typically house cats being returned to their outdoor homes for no more than 48 hours, including pre-surgery holding and post-surgery recovery. This not only reduces the pressure on a shelter’s capacity, but also minimizes the stress levels on all the animals (including non-CCP cats and dogs) potentially affected by crowded conditions. In such programs, cats are generally kept in their traps (always covered) before and after surgery.

This kind of an arrangement obviously permits a certain degree of flexibility where housing is concerned. Trapped cats could, of course, be kept at the shelter, stacked on shelves in an area designated for CCP cats. If necessary, they could also be kept at partner clinics or with volunteers, who set aside space in a spare room, basement or garage (assuming certain conditions are met, as described below). Either way, the following factors must be taken into consideration.

Appropriate environment. The space must be dry, temperature-controlled (approximately 70°F), quiet and free of fumes. There should be no open windows or doors (in the event that a cat escapes from a trap) and no other animals should have access to trapped cats.

Housing capacity. Before trapping, it’s important to know how many cats a program can safely house, especially for those programs that rely heavily on volunteers’ spare rooms, garages, and so forth. Under such circumstances, it doesn’t take much to affect the program’s overall capacity — a volunteer on vacation, for example, or an outbreak of ringworm that renders a volunteer’s home temporarily off-limits. It’s best, of course, to have excess capacity built into the program, thereby minimizing the chances that such disruptions actually affect operations.

Illness and infectious disease. Unvaccinated cats — and especially kittens — are at high risk of contracting and spreading diseases when housed in close quarters. Feline panleukopenia and feline calicivirus are life-threatening and can be easily spread by improper handling and cleaning techniques. Feline rhinotracheitis (i.e., upper respiratory infection), feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus can be spread by direct and/or indirect contact (e.g., via contaminated gloves or clothing).

Zoonotic diseases — those that can be passed between animals and humans — should also be considered a risk. Examples include ringworm, cat-scratch disease, rabies, bacterial infections, and parasites (e.g., Toxoplasma gondii and worms, and those transmitted by fleas, ticks and mites). Proper handling techniques (e.g., wearing gloves and washing your hands thoroughly after handling each cat and when cleaning traps or litter boxes) will greatly reduce such risks. (To minimize the risk to pets at home, it’s recommended that CCP staff and volunteers change clothes and shoes before returning home after their shift and keep pets away from community cats in traps.)

Monitoring and in-trap care. For the most part, recovering cats should be left alone (and covered), but it’s important that somebody check on them every hour or two to monitor their progress, especially when they first regain consciousness and the anesthesia is wearing off (i.e., approximately six to eight hours after surgery for adults). Signs of distress, including vomiting, bleeding, labored breathing or prolonged grogginess (more than 24 hours after surgery), require immediate veterinary assistance.

Once a cat’s eyes no longer have a glazed-over appearance and he’s sitting upright, he can eat a small amount of canned food (e.g., three ounces for adults, one-and-a-half ounces for kittens). Canned food is recommended because of its high water content. (If holding the cat for 24 hours or less, there’s no need to provide water separately.) For kittens six months or younger, there’s no need to wait eight hours; they can be fed as soon as they regain consciousness (monitoring for any vomiting) and again eight to twelve hours later. (See “Post-surgery Recovery” and the in-trap care section of “Trapping Protocols” for additional information on these topics.)

Access by staff, volunteers and others. Even during short-term housing, it will probably be necessary for multiple people to have access to the cats. One volunteer might provide transportation from the clinic to the home of another volunteer, for example. Or there might be a regular team of volunteers who care for cats housed at the shelter. It’s important that everybody involved has access (including 24/7, as necessary) to the cats, of course, but it’s also important that access be appropriately restricted to only those people who truly require access to the cats. (In the shelter environment, CCP cats are generally kept separate from other cats.)

Communication of critical information. Each trap should be tagged in such a way that the cat can be returned to the exact location from which he or she was trapped, and that any necessary medical treatment can be administered prior to release. Information typically recorded (on a voucher, kennel card or index card, etc.) includes the trapping location, trap number, the name of the trapper or organization, the date the cat was trapped, a physical description of the cat, and any notes regarding medical conditions and treatments.

Long-term housing

Again, most CCPs house cats for no more than 48 hours (including pre- and post-surgery). However, there are instances when long-term housing is necessary. For example, cats who come into a shelter or clinic with certain medical conditions (e.g., ringworm, broken limb) will often be treated and monitored in a kennel until they are ready to be returned.

The Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters provides detailed information regarding the appropriate housing of cats and kittens, and readers are encouraged to carefully review this information. The following, then, is just a brief overview of the additional considerations (on top of those already discussed above under “Short-term Housing”) when housing cats for more than 48 hours.

Kennels. Stainless steel kennels not only provide more space than traps, but are also easier to clean. They give cats a greater opportunity to escape, however, during feeding and cleaning. A “feral cat den” (available from Neighborhood Cats, Tomahawk and others) is recommended, as it gives the cat a safe place to hide and an additional measure of safety for CCP staff and volunteers. After the den is used to transfer the cat from the trap to the kennel, it’s placed inside the kennel with its pivoting door open. The door can then be used to cover the opening when cleaning or feeding.

Note: If a den is not available, be sure to provide some other hiding place for the cat (e.g., a small carrier, box or cover over the front of the kennel), as this will help reduce stress.

Bedding. Soft bedding, a tent or some other kind of “hidey hole” should be provided. This is especially important if feral cat dens aren’t provided, as the bedding will be used by some cats to create a safe hiding place. Soiled bedding must be replaced regularly.

Food and water. Fresh food and water should be provided twice daily, and should be kept as far as possible from the litter pan. (“Portals” can be installed between kennels, allowing cats separate areas for eating/drinking and elimination, as shown in the photo.)
Portals” can be installed between kennels, allowing cats separate areas for eating/drinking and elimination
Photo courtesy of Cynthia Karsten

Litter pan. A small pan of clean litter must be provided and changed regularly.

Cleaning. Regular cleaning is essential for minimizing the spread of infectious disease.[1] An accelerated hydrogen peroxide–based disinfectant (e.g., Accel), which requires only about 10 minutes to be effective, is recommended. Note: Disinfectants work best when applied to freshly contaminated surfaces and only after organic debris has been removed with soap or detergent. So, it’s best to clean up as soon as possible, and disinfect after an initial cleaning of the surfaces.

Communication of critical information. Kennel cards should be used to communicate key information about each cat and kitten, such as physical description, notes regarding medical condition, and protocols for medicines and other treatments.

Additional resources

The 28 chapters that make up the CCP Handbook fall into three sections, as follows:




[1] According to the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, “Animals who are housed long-term in the same enclosure require less frequent disinfection of their enclosure, but daily cleaning is still essential to maintain sanitary conditions.”

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