By Sophia Emory
Abby Smith isn’t one to settle for the status quo. And that’s a very good thing for the animals who find their way to her. Smith, executive director of Chicago’s Felines & Canines animal shelter, is breaking new ground in feline housing practices, and paving the way for happier, healthier environments for shelter cats. And it’s all because she followed her gut, even when it meant going against traditional protocol.
In 2012, Felines & Canines built a new facility, which involved a complete rehab of their existing building. During the construction, the entire operation moved into a one-room makeshift shelter with limited space. Smith and her team were faced with two options: Euthanize all of their segregated FIV+ cats, or take a leap of faith and incorporate the FIV+ cats into the general population.
FIV, or feline immunodeficiency virus, is a disease that is quite similar to human HIV/AIDS. Cats with FIV can live for a number of years without symptoms, and most go on to live normal, healthy lives. The disease is transmitted from cat-to-cat only via direct contact—such as bites, puncture wounds, deep scratches, and occasionally during birth.
Despite the recommendations to keep infected and non- infected cats apart, for Smith it was clear that integrating the FIV+ cats was the only choice. Previous experience combined with extensive research gave her the confidence she needed to trust that the benefits far outweighed the risks.
What happened was amazing: The FIV+ cats lived happily together with the rest of the cats, and every single one of the friendly, social cats living with FIV was adopted faster than usual.
As time passed and the staff noticed the positive changes, they were inspired to scratch the FIV+ room from the shelter blueprints and opt for one large, free-roaming cat floor. This not being a common practice, they were prepared to hear negative feedback from the animal welfare community, but the reality was quite the opposite. Supporters and donors thought it was wonderful, and some other Chicagoland shelters voiced their support, eager to learn from Felines & Canines’ experience as they investigated options for their own all-encompassing cat rooms.
The Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago is closely following the experiences of Felines & Canines and monitoring new research on the commingling of FIV+ cats, says vice president David Dinger. “We are hopeful that one day in the future we can house all of our cats together, keeping them happy and healthy in the process,” he says.
Current medical recommendations advise shelters to completely isolate FIV+ cats. Some local shelters continue to follow these guidelines more strictly and don’t house any FIV+ cats at their facility, choosing instead to keep them in foster homes. That protocol is the exact reason why Smith feels commingling the cats is important. “We have spent years combating the stigma that FIV+ cats must be isolated and treated as lepers,” Smith explains. “Our mindset is that if you are housing friendly, well- socialized cats who are not prone to viciously fighting with others, you can safely intermingle positive and negative cats.”
After moving back into the new, shared-housing community, Smith and her co-workers watched as the FIV+ population continued to thrive and find adoptive families faster than they ever could have dreamed. However, there was still one question to be answered: In the past two years, had any FIV-negative cats contracted the virus as a result of the intermingling? The shelter shut down for an entire day and tested more than 100 cats for FIV. The results showed that not one cat tested positive who did not come in to the shelter that way.
The results of the successful integration are monumental. Smith’s wish is that her positive experience will help others champion for FIV+ cats. “Hopefully in the near future facilities will no longer feel the need to euthanize FIV+ cats, or leave them sitting in an isolated room for months or years at a time,” she says.
She is quick to point out, however, that shelters must do the work required for successful results, and be mindful of the cats’ needs. “We are diligent about thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the shelter every single day, keeping our animals on a high-quality diet enriched with L-Lysine, offering regular medical care, and creating a low-stress environment,” she says. “All of which contribute to a healthy, happy animal.”
There are ongoing studies and research on FIV+ cats, and the positive results of experiments like the one Felines & Canines conducted will hopefully contribute to updated recommendations for working with the FIV population.