Assessment of stress levels among cats in four animal shelters

J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2005 Feb 15;226(4):548-55. doi: 10.2460/javma.2005.226.548.


Objective: To measure stress levels among cats in traditional and enriched shelter environments via behavioral assessment and urine cortisol-to-creatinine ratios.

Design: Cross-sectional observational study.

Animals: 120 cats in 4 Boston-area animal shelters.

Procedure: Cats were randomly selected and observed during 3 periods (morning, midday, and afternoon) of 1 day and scored by use of a behavioral assessment scale. The next day, urine samples were collected for analysis of the urine cortisol-to-creatinine ratio. Information about each cat's background before entering the shelter was collected.

Results: Stress scores were highest in the morning. The relationships between the amount of time cats spent in the shelter and the cat stress score or urine cortisol-to-creatinine ratio were not strong. There was no correlation between the cat stress score and urine cortisol-to-creatinine ratio. Urine cortisol-to-creatinine ratios did correlate with signs of systemic disease and were significantly lower in cats in the more environmentally enriched shelters, compared with cats in the traditional shelters. Urine cortisol-to-creatinine ratio was highest among cats with high exposure to dogs. Of the cats in the study, 25% had subclinical hematuria detectable on a urine dipstick.

Conclusions and clinical relevance: In this study, the cat stress score was not a useful instrument for measuring stress because it failed to identify cats with feigned sleep and high stress levels. Urine cortisol-to-creatinine ratios can be monitored to noninvasively assess stress levels in confined cats. Environmental enrichment strategies may help improve the welfare of cats in animal shelters.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Cat Diseases / diagnosis
  • Cat Diseases / urine
  • Cats / psychology*
  • Cats / urine*
  • Creatinine / urine
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Environment*
  • Female
  • Hydrocortisone / urine
  • Male
  • Stress, Physiological / urine
  • Stress, Physiological / veterinary*
  • Time Factors
  • Urinalysis


  • Creatinine
  • Hydrocortisone