Domestic cats have evolved from solitary, asocial predators and whilst they may display social behaviours, they can still exist as solitary survivors. Over-population and relinquishment of pet cats are ubiquitous problems worldwide, and rehoming centres (also known as rescues/ shelters) aim to ameliorate this by holding cats in confinement for a variable period until a new home is found. The provision of optimal housing for large numbers of cats in close confinement, such as in rehoming centres, is therefore inherently difficult. Under these conditions there is the potential for individuals to develop signs of physical and psychological ill health, and thus experience compromised welfare. Available information regarding housing practices that maximise welfare currently provides conflicting results, and as a consequence there are no unanimous housing recommendations. The aim of this study was therefore to review the evidence on the impact of single housing compared to multi-cat housing on stress in confined cats, as measured by physiological and/or behavioural outcomes. The review was conducted using a Critically Appraised Topic (CAT) format. A systematic search of electronic databases (CAB Abstracts, Zoological Records and Medline) was carried out to identify peer-reviewed literature comparing single and multi-cat housing in confined environments.
A total of 959 papers were initially identified, six of which met sufficient criteria based on their relevance to be included within this review. All of the studies had significant limitations in design and methodology, including a lack of information on how groups were assigned, inconsistent handling and enrichment provision between groups, and lack of information on the socialisation status of cats.
Whilst some studies suggested that single housing may be less stressful for cats, others suggested group housing was less stressful. Several other important factors were however identified as potential mediators of stress within the different housing systems, and recommendations based upon these findings are presented.