Building Design for Animals
Article by Paul Gladysz, AIA, NCARB, CSI, ICC
Soothing the savage kitty: feline-friendly practices
Whether you are a dog lover or a cat lover, routine pet care is integral to maintaining the health of our furry children.
Despite their independent natures or perhaps due to, cats are more popular in the home than dogs, but are a substantial minority of veterinary visitors. As any proud human servant of a cat will tell you, our felines are adored, so why would they receive less health care than their less esteemed and drooly canine counterparts? Research has indicated possible related causes: pet acquisition, client education, and a lack of emphasis on preventative health programs. Overall, however, in-clinic anxiety remains one of most easily identifiable reasons cats are less often seen in the vet’s office. As a new clinic is being constructed, this issue is easily addressed, and even if you are renovating an existing space, there is much that can still be done.
Let’s look at it from the typical owner’s perspective: Unless you have that very special cat that travels on your shoulder, in a window hammock in the car, or backpack hikes with you, most cat owners would say that their cat does not adjust well to change, either in setting or routine. They are special snowflakes, remnants of Egyptian gods, and dangerous when disturbed. If your special snowflake never leaves the house, never comes into contact with creatures other than immediate family and friends, even annual routine care can seem daunting. When emergency arrives at your cat’s doorstep, anxiety takes a back seat to immediate action, but in the daily run of things, why disrupt the inner saber-toothed tiger when you don’t need to? A trip to the vet can be traumatizing, for both feline and friend. An anxious cat is a creature armed with fangs and claws and a truly amazing strike speed. Frightened cat reactions WILL injure staff and clients more readily than canine anxiety.
In response to this, there has been a definite rise in the number of feline-only practices. By being cat-exclusive many typical stressors simply don’t exist. Because most general practices are not single species we will focus on strategies that can be incorporated in a typical small animal clinic to improve the in-hospital experience. The idea of making clinics feline-friendly is not new, my colleagues and I have been working at it for quite a while. What follows are features we have been refining over many years so we’ve learned what works.
Separate the species to the greatest possible extent, on both the client side and clinical side.
In other words, keep your stinky dog over there!
In line with scent control, when possible maintain separate air flow for feline areas or lacking that, configure air flow so that fresh air is introduced into the feline area before circulating toward the canine. The intent is to minimize dog scents in cat spaces.
Noise control is equally as important. Separate dog spaces from cat spaces, especially noise-producing rooms like wards. If distance is not an option make the dividing wall sound-resistant and add sound-absorbing materials to minimize impact. Walls are made sound-resistant by adding mass, usually in the form of additional layers of drywall. Each of the major drywall manufacturers offer products specific to this purpose. Also, adding vibration isolating members will de-couple and reduce structure-borne sound. Last, and probably most import, is sealing the wall. A one-inch hole will negate all your sound proofing efforts. Walls must be continuous up to a solid plane above and acoustic caulk should be used at the floor. Fill around outlets and switches with expanding foam and use foam gaskets under cover plates. It is more stress-reducing to control noise entering the room but once you’ve done as much as you can there you can also make the feline side less “reverberant”. Dog areas need more bulletproof finishes than cat spaces where wall panels are easily installed.
The goal is to cover as much of the room’s surface as possible with absorbing finishes. One third is minimal, one half is better. Even consider carpet in cat-only rooms. High abuse carpet tiles like those installed in airports and human hospitals are very effective in improving acoustics. If carpet is not possible cleanable area rugs will also help.
Separate cat-only waiting areas will ease both cat and owner. The owner is already anxious, having removed the feline friend from his or her area of comfort, i.e., the home. Fear of trauma is real, and the cats will pick up on this, thus heightening the anxiety. Cats waiting should not be a pass-through space. Rather, create an alcove off the main circulation. Remember, cats are aerial creatures. They don’t like to be low, providing raised platforms at stopping points - at the reception desk, waiting/sitting areas, exam rooms - will help the cats feel more secure looking down from above. Ideally these platforms would be above seating level; countertop height or higher.
If possible have feline-only exam rooms with more direct access from the waiting room to exam room. The fewer transitions and changes of scene, the better. Separate exterior exam doors can be extremely beneficial- many clinics include exam rooms either with separate exit doors or close to side exits to allow grieving clients to exit post-euthanasia. A similar configuration would allow clients with anxious cats to enter bypassing the waiting area altogether. This requires attention to scheduling, communication via cell phone, and an exterior waiting spot; reserved parking and/or exterior patio. Consider reducing waiting room space in favor of additional cat exams. Have owners/pets wait in the “extra” exam room.
Feline exam rooms should be bright and well ventilated and should be securely enclosed. Use solid doors or frosted glass with door closers and latching hardware. Doors should swing into the room to help “sweep” a loose cat back from the opening. Avoid sliding doors that do not seal well at the floor. Some installations have floor gaps large enough for kitties to get under, it also very difficult to sound-seal pocket doors.
Every cat is an expert at hide-and-seek so utilize seating of a type without space underneath for cats to escape to and hide under, and casework with closing doors on all lower cabinets. Exam table tops made of warmer materials are preferred - laminate or phenolic tops instead of stainless. Heated tops can help comfort and reduce anxiety. If all your existing tables are stainless, use a towel over a non-slip rubber pad. (One practice used an electrically heated version intended for foot warming that worked quite well!) It is also helpful to have a shelf to store towels to cover carriers that is convenient to client access.
Synthetic scents/pheromones and frequency-tuned music can also help set a relaxing mood.
Separating species in treatment areas is a bit more challenging for existing hospitals but even if you can’t dedicate separate rooms it is sometimes possible to minimize dog-cat interaction.
Cage covers and other sight barriers are helpful. Try not to have cage banks facing each other, even turning 90 degrees will allow a higher level of separation. If at all possible noisy dogs should be kept in a separate room. It’s best if there is a separate cat ward and ICU, even a cage bank behind a glass wall will be better than keeping cats in a treatment room and will help maintain visibility.
We prefer non-stainless cat “condo” style enclosures for anything other than ICU or recovery settings. There is a tendency for stainless cages doors to be loud/reverberant and these hard, seamless cage interiors will amplify perceived sound levels acting basically as an echo chamber. The condo configuration allows cats to find more concealed resting spots should they desire. Condos can also be configured to handle litter and odors much better than single cages. They are also typically higher off the ground; low cages should be avoided.
By taking these concerns into consideration, a soothing and welcoming space can be created to reduce feline anxiety and increase the frequency of cat visits for routine care, specialty care, and who knows, maybe just to say hi. Soothe the beast, soothe the owner, and everyone will be happy. No need for tooth and claw when a space is warm and comfortable and designed with feline security in mind.
Help the tiger feel safe, and everyone will enjoy the kitten inside.
A Few Extra Tips:
- Encourage cat owners to have travel carriers accessible to their friends 24/7, even if it’s simply left open under the bed. By making the carrier a desired safe place, a refuge, when the carrier is needed for transport, kitty will be much calmer.
- If separate feline spaces are not possible consider scheduling dedicated “cat mornings” to see cases with no dogs at those times.
- There are a number of organizations with published guidelines for their members. In the US see the American Association of Feline Practitioners “Cat Friendly Practice” program. Outside the US see the International Society of Feline Medicine “Cat Friendly Clinic”.