by Lorraine Shelton
"Many facilities have come a long way in making research conditions more humane for the animals, but they still involve small enclosures without a lot of enrichment," says Amy Fischer of the Department of Animal Sciences at University of Illinois and lead investigator of the study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery . "We wanted to make our cats' environment much more stimulating." These researchers created a unique study environment designed to mimic a more typical home environment for the cats, in order to study the efficacy of a new feline contraceptive vaccine. The cats became much more friendly and adoptable with the changes to their environment.
For years researchers have searched for ways to prevent unwanted feline pregnancies in community cats, as traditional spay and neuter services are expensive, since they can only be performed by licensed veterinarians. An injectable contraceptive vaccine, was shown to be effective in laboratory-raised cats, but it was unknown how effective the vaccine would be in "the real world".
The 35 cats in the study, at high risk for euthanasia in local shelters, were housed in a large, open building, with an attached quarter-acre outdoor enclosure. The indoor environment had scratching posts, furniture, toys, and hiding places. Volunteers, played with the cats and trained them to feel more comfortable with veterinary procedures, such as blood draws and ultrasounds. Thirty female cats, about half treated with the vaccine and half untreated, were allowed to intermingle and breed with five intact males as they would under natural conditions.
Unfortunately, 60% of vaccinated females became pregnant within a few months of receiving the vaccine, with an additional 10% pregnant within the year.
Although the outcome was disappointing, valuable lessons were learned on creating a better environment for studying cats. These cats, deemed unadoptable at the local shelters prior to the study, became so well socialized that they were easily placed into good homes at the end of the study.