Enrichment activities such as stroller walking can improve feline health
Culture, U.S. & World

Enrichment activities such as stroller walking can improve feline health

Rebecca Barnabi

(© Irina - stock.adobe.com)New research suggests that cats taken out in strollers have increased health and wellbeing.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), more than 3 million cats enter shelters each year in the United States.

Along with shelter life, comes stress for many cats. However, enrichment activities can reduce stress.

“Dogs living in animal shelters are often taken out of their kennels for walks and play groups, while cats typically remain within the confines of their kennel for the duration of their time at the shelter,” Allie Andrukonis, postdoctoral research associate in the School of Animal Sciences within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and one of the researchers in the study, said.

Erica Feuerbacher, associate professor in the School of Animal Sciences, partnered with the Montgomery County Animal Care and Adoption Center to study the impact of time spent outdoors on feline welfare, behavior and adoption prospects. The student researchers worked to find out if training shelter cats to use strollers is a cost-effective solution to behavior issues.

“Despite the increasing popularity of strollers and backpacks for cats, no study has actually assessed the impact of taking a cat in a stroller or backpack on cat behavior. Our study will be the first to assess that as well as if training the cat ahead of time to hop into the stroller impacts the number of stress-related behaviors we see,” Feuerbacher said. Training the cats to be in strollers may increase their chances for adoption.

Julianna Scardina, a member of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2024, is one of the research students. She said a stroller is an excellent choice to balance enrichment and the safety of the animal and the environment.

“Some owners may not be comfortable taking their cats outside for a number of reasons like stray animals, parasites or they don’t want their cat roaming and hunting wildlife,” Scardina said. “And not all cats tolerate leash walking, so utilizing a stroller can allow pet and owner to get outdoors with less worry because it’s enclosed but easily portable.”

The behavior of cats and kittens was observed over several days to determine overall well-being and any changes after a 15-minute walk in a stroller. Some cats also went through stroller desensitization training prior to walks.

“We have a coding system that documents different behaviors to determine the cat’s comfort level,” Scardina said. “If they begin to display behaviors like yowling or crouching, we make sure to remove them from the environment and get them comfortable again.”

The study also found that human wellbeing was enriched by walking a cat in a stroller.

“I used to have a little tiny fear of cats,” said Yhakira Gray, who is using the project as part of a Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) internship. “This experience has helped me with cat handling experience, and I hope to keep growing that.”

The eyes of Yasmeen Gomez, an MAOP scholar, were opened by the research experience and the possibility of incorporating research and animal behavior into a veterinarian experience in vet school.

Yanran Sheng said: “I just wanted to pet more cats!”

Confirming if strollers are the answer is not yet known, but the team is still analyzing data. The team hopes to continue their work by implementing a volunteer walk at the shelter for the cats to increase adoption rates and by studying whether walking a cat increases the human-animal bond.

“The outcome of this study also opens the door to exploring how cat owners might share some of the ‘walking’ and emotional benefits associated with walking dogs,” Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, VMCVM professor and director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships (CENTAUR) who served as a mentor on the study, said, “such as increased exercise, and in particular, increased opportunities to experience more social interactions and stronger connections within their communities.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.