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Cats kept in pens are not living their best life

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Q: I’m trying to help half a dozen cats who are kept in pens. I would like to see them hunt, climb, chase, choose which cats they associate with, and have more than just one spot to sleep in. To me, keeping cats in pens is inhumane, but Animal Services disagrees with me. They say no, they’re doing just fine. They’re fed and cared for, and don’t appear to be under any stress. The cats live in pens about the size of the old roadside zoos. You might be too young to have seen those, but you could see a coyote or a bobcat in a small pen. These cats’ pens stink of urine. The neighbor insists that she is trying to protect them from coyotes and traffic.

Dr. Jeff NicholDr. Nichol: Thank you for believing that I am too young to have seen incarcerated wild animals on display for the viewing pleasure of travelers. It is well established that solitary confinement for any species diminishes their well-being by depriving them of their ability to engage in natural behaviors. Doing time in a penitentiary is not among my life goals.

The Five Freedoms of animal welfare, supported by the ASPCA, were drummed into my head during my behavior medicine residency: freedom from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

Your neighbor’s well-intentioned protective custody has prevented her kitties from being road kill or lunch, but for wild animals we keep as pets (cats), some hardships are worse than death. Post-graduate study of animal behavior teaches that the natural stress of staying out of the clutches of predators is an innate part of life. Cats are genetically programmed to roam, hunt and survive. Cats who live indoors need a plethora of environmental enrichments to simulate a quasi-natural existence.

This is a conundrum. Feral cats should not be a menace to public health, but stripping them of their basic dignity amounts to inhumane treatment. Personally, I would rather live well than live long. That’s easy for me to say; I am blessed with an excellent life.

Each week, Dr. Jeff Nichol makes a short video, blog or podcast to help bring out the best in pets. Sign up at no charge at Dr. Nichol treats behavior disorders at the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe (505-792-5131). You can post pet questions at or by mail to 4000 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109.