The increase of domestic animals kept in shelters highlights the need to ensure animal welfare. Environmental enrichment can improve animal welfare in many ways, such as encouraging captive animals to use all the space available to them. The effects of physical environmental enrichment on the spatial distribution and behavioral repertoire of 35 neutered domestic cats housed communally were analyzed. The provision of boxes in the environment increases the use of available space by the cats. We suggest this improves the cats' welfare while in communally-housed rescue shelters. The frequencies of active and especially inactive behaviors also increased in the enriched condition. In a test with vertical environmental enrichment, the animals showed an increased length of stay in refuges located at a height of 0.5 m compared to those on the ground (0.0 m). However, the entry frequency was higher in refuges at 0.0 m. Both horizontal and vertical environmental enrichment increased the use of available space, demonstrating that box refuges as enrichment are effective in providing a refuge when at a height, or a place to explore at ground level. We suggest it enhances the welfare of cats in communally housed shelters. This information adds to the body of evidence relating to cat enrichment and can be useful in designing cat housing in veterinary clinics, research laboratories, shelters and domestic homes.
Keywords: animal welfare; cats; environmental enrichment; refuges; use of space.