Researchers at the University of Illinois have created a unique study environment designed to bridge the gap between the lab and the real world in which resident cats can roam while participating in a study aimed to find alternatives to traditional spay and neuter services.
With a large climbing tree in the center, the completely open pole barn contains two levels, furniture, toys, scented objects, and a quarter-acre outdoor enclosure.
“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,” said Amy Fischer, PhD, of the Department of Animal Sciences at the university and lead investigator of the study. “We wanted to make our cats’ environment much more stimulating.”
The GonaCon study
Though spay and neuter services can help reduce feral and free-roaming cats, they are invasive and expensive procedures that require a high level of veterinary training, said researchers. GonaCon, an injectable contraceptive vaccine that has been shown to be effective in several mammals, including deer, horses, and laboratory-raised cats, has been considered as an alternative, but field-testing such a product is complicated, they added.
During the study, female cats were allowed to intermingle and breed with five males as they would in natural conditions. The majority of females (20) were treated with GonaCon; 10 others were left untreated for comparison. Student volunteers played with and trained the cats so they would feel more comfortable with veterinary exams and procedures.
To make the population more realistic, the 35 cats chosen for the study were unlike the genetically uniform laboratory-raised cats commonly used, as they came from local animal shelters.
“It was important for us to recruit cats that didn’t have very favorable outcomes, including high-risk cats that were probably going to be euthanized at the shelters,” Fischer said. “Part of our big picture was to bring in cats that didn’t have good possibilities elsewhere.”
In the end, the vaccine was not effective in preventing pregnancies, as 60 percent of treated females were impregnated within a few months of receiving the vaccine; an additional 10 percent became pregnant within a year.
Due to the planned five-year study’s low success rate, it was terminated early.
Fischer said she believes she’ll use the hybrid research/shelter facility again in the future to test new contraceptive technologies in development. By then, the facility may not be the only one of its kind, as several researchers and shelters have inquired about the design.
The research article, “Hybrid model intermediate between a laboratory and field study: A humane paradigm shift in feline research,” is published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery [DOI: 10.1177/1098612X18791872].