PVHS program focuses on shy cats

Volunteer Leah Dennis plays with Lucky (while Abra looks on) as part of Pembina Valley Humane Society's new cat enrichment program. (LAUREN MACGILL, Morden Times)

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Pembina Valley Humane Society is trying out a new cat enrichment program to try to engage some of their more shy animals.

The program stems from the individual needs of cats in their care, some of whom weren’t getting enough of the attention they needed. “We realized in the last while that not all cats respond well to touches and cuddling,” shelter manager Dave Bone said. “A lot like people, cats have different personalities, different needs, different things that they enjoy.”

Bone said they noticed the cat cuddling program was very focused on physical contact with cats. This was great for the cats that enjoy being petted, but not so great for cats who don’t respond well to touch. “We noticed that there are certain cats in each room that would go hide in a house or behind somewhere and stay there until the cat cuddler was done their shift,” Bone said.

PVHS has a close working relationship with the Winnipeg Humane Society, and Bone went to Winnipeg to see the cat enrichment program they had just started up. “We liked what they were doing with it so we kind of custom built it to our shelter,” he said. “A lot of their cats don’t have communal rooms so we tailor-made ours for the communal cats rooms and put together a cat enrichment program.”

The cat enrichment program focuses on stimulating all of a cat’s senses. Every cat room will have a box of specific toys and items that will be rotated in and out. There are toys like mice and balls, a spinning hummingbird that flies around and scent stimulators like catnip and grouse scented toys. One box has a projector that projects images onto the wall, and the bundles come with a notebook where volunteers can log interactions.

“Oftentimes we do a lot of research and a lot of studying on our dogs and then we adopt out cats that we don’t know [things about],” Bone said. “We’ve started performing behaviour assessments on cats, making age recommendations for the homes as far as children, and taking the whole cat aspect of what we do a little more seriously than we have in the past.”

“It was just for a lack of knowledge,” he added. “It wasn’t like we were ignoring them or anything, but a lot of work goes into the dogs and that side of the shelter and we wanted to make sure that an equal amount of effort was going into our cats.”

Ultimately, Bone hopes the program will help engage the cats at the shelter and make them happier and more adoptable. He said the cats who respond to touch will still be visited regularly by cat cuddlers, but he hopes that those cats who are a little more shy come out of their shell.

“We have two cats in the shelter right now, Meeko and Abra, who have been here about a year and a half each,” he said. “That’s a very long time for an animal to be at the shelter. It doesn’t happen very often but those two specifically usually hide when folks come into the room, they don’t show very well. We’re hoping this program is going to make them realize that people coming into the room are not just going to be handsy, that they’re going to get something they need as well.”

Bone said he hopes the cat enrichment program will speed up adoption times and leave the shelter with less long-term stays, and give the cats an enjoyable experience while they wait for their forever home.

PVHS is also working on a similar dog enrichment program, as long winter months cooped up inside can be hard on dogs as well. The program would include indoor activities, games and toys to keep them stimulated throughout the winter.

PVHS has been operating for around 10 years now, and Bone said they recently hit their 1,000th dog adoption and have adopted out around 1,200 cats in that time.
“It’s definitely rewarding,” Bone said. “I’m a very goal-driven person, so I don’t take too much to enjoy that victory. I’m always looking forward to what can we do this year, what can we do this month.”

“Summertime has been a little bit slow for us this year,” he added. “We have 11 kittens either in shelter or foster care right now, which is a really big number, so we’d like to see some of those kittens go home before they become adolescents and adult cats that maybe get lost in the fray of all the other cats we have.”

Bone said kittens who go home earlier tend to do better in a home than cats who have grown up in a shelter. “It’s rewarding to see those numbers, but it also sets the bar that much higher for years to come.”

Summer is also a slow time for volunteers, and Bone said the shelter has been struggling to get their core shifts filled. “We have a skeleton crew right now who are very dedicated who are doing extra shifts,” he said. “Right now we have the work of many people done by the few, and it would be nice to see some fresh faces and some people who are willing to help us out, even just through the summer months until we have our students back in fall.”

Lucky prepares to pounce on a new hummingbird toy as part of Pembina Valley Humane Society’s cat enrichment program. (LAUREN MACGILL, Morden Times)