CHAPEL HILL - Since opening the county animal shelter in 2009, Animal Services director Bob Marotto has noticed a few things he would like to have done differently for the cats.
The cages are not as large as he would like, and the shelter needs more room for visitors and more flexible holding areas.
The Animal Services Department has not recommended, and doesn't have money for, sweeping changes, but the staff is making small adjustments to improve the cats' quality of life, Marotto said.
"We want to be sure that we know how these practices are working elsewhere and [are] confident that they will work effectively for us before we make any final recommendations for change," he said.
Local animal advocates say the shelter could do more, while increasing adoption rates and reducing euthanizations.
Chapel Hill resident Robin Cutson said she became concerned after visiting the shelter on Eubanks Road with friends looking to adopt a pet.
The building's huge lobby and staff areas are "wasted space," she said.
While health problems keep her from volunteering at the shelter, Cutson said she hopes to get more people involved.
The fact that it's taken nearly two years, and six months of public discussion, to make changes "indicates, to me, a lack of concern," Cutson said, "especially since the experts said it is critical, if the cats are in small cages, to provide enrichment items."
Research shows cats living more than a week or two in small cages without adequate stimulation can become lethargic, depressed and hard to adopt.Veterinary guidelines
While Orange County's single cat cages exceed state regulations, they don't meet the December guidelines from the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.
In addition to food, water, medical care and housing, the guidelines recommend opportunities to socialize with other cats and express normal behaviors like scratching and play.
Marotto said the ASV started developing the guidelines long after the new shelter was designed.
Adoptable cats live in 24 "condos" in two sizes - 5.65 square feet and 6.73 square feet of floor space - with an upper-level shelf and separate litter area.
Kittens and cat families live in three roughly 16-square-foot colony rooms with windows and new cat towers to take advantage of the vertical space.
On average, cats stayed three to four weeks at the shelter last year, while dogs stayed for one to two weeks.
The shelter has 87 cat cages and 79 dog cages served by a state-of-the-art ventilation system that filters odors and prevents the spread of infectious diseases.
Cats in the intake, holding and quarantine areas live in traditional metal cages, like the shelter used to have when it was located on Municipal Drive off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Critics have suggested shelter and county officials use volunteer labor to renovate part of the lobby or a conference room into a colony room for six to eight cats. A small corner could become a third exercise room.
The shelter also should provide at least an hour of daily exercise for cats, Cutson said. One inexpensive idea is donated gift bags, which the cats love, she said. Making the space more fun and opening the shelter on Sundays also would encourage more people to visit, she said.
Marotto said they tried the bags but haven't decided to keep them yet. They're also seeking donations to buy more cat toys and accessories. Opening on Sundays is not likely.Cat colony rooms
Around the Triangle, shelters are housing more cats in colony rooms. The state limits colonies to 12 cats, with some exceptions.
Chatham County's privately run Goathouse Refuge, for instance, runs a small "cat house" with multiple places to hide and sleep; kittens live in a screened-in area. The cats also have the run of a fenced-in portion of the wooded property during the day.
Cat Angels Pet Adoption in Cary is more urban, operating in an industrial park. Co-founder Mike Fox said he and his wife Deborah average about 60 cats in four rooms outfitted with cat towers, hiding places and toys. Cat condos provide overflow space.
Shelter manager Shafonda Price of Durham's Animal Protection Society said they still use metal cages for most cats. Others stay in a large cottage room, divided between cats and kittens. New arrivals stay in playpens until they're acclimated.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture regulates shelters, requiring moisture-resistant cages and at least 4 square feet of floor space. The standard ASV enclosures have at least 2 feet of floor space between food, litter and resting areas. Shelters can adapt by cutting portholes in the cage walls to connect multiple units, they said.
Marotto said he's opposed to using lobby or office space to house cats, because they're far from animal care areas and not on the ventilation system.
The shelter won't require exercise either, because every cat responds differently and staffing is limited, he said.
Instead, volunteers are encouraged to take cats into the meet-and-greet rooms for exercise. They're also adding toys to the condos and cardboard scratching boxes that hang on cage doors. Those go home with cats when they're adopted, Marotto said.
More cats will be adopted and recovered when the community stops treating them like second-class pets, Marotto said.
In general, cat owners seek less veterinary care, don't use a collar or microchip and don't check for lost pets. Some think cats aren't social creatures.
In 2010, state reports show only 5 percent of 1,749 cats that came into the shelter returned home, compared to 23 percent of the 1,786 dogs. In Durham and Wake counties, only 2 percent of owners retrieved missing cats.
Cutson said the shelter could help with free microchipping at adoption. Shelters in Durham, Wake and Guilford counties provide a microchip, but Marotto said budget cuts forced them to an optional program with a $25 fee.