It’s Time for Playgroup!

I really like Mondays. I know that sounds weird, but it’s because on Mondays, our shelter is closed to the public and that’s when we get to have cat playgroup. No, you aren’t reading wrong, and I’m not talking about dogs. Our cats get a playgroup of their very own.

We close all the doors to the adoption center, put up signs to make sure no dogs come through, put a litter box out, and grab the extra pair of hawk gloves (as a precautionary measure—but they’re hardly ever needed). Then it’s time to bring out the cats.

It’s really important to go slowly. Bring out two cats, let them settle in the room. Then bring out another. Cats are environment-sensitive animals. Some get nervous being taken out of their cage and into a room they’ve never been in before. Some, of course, hate other cats. If we know that ahead of time (either from owner testimony or our observations in their cages) we might not bring them out. But usually we’ll try every cat at least once. Because sometimes they do change their mind, and sometimes a cat that you’d bet money hates other cats actually likes them (or vice versa).

A cat is qualified for playgroup when:

  1. They’ve been fully health-checked by the vet and have no signs of an upper respiratory infection (URI) or other disease.
  2. There are no signs of stress-related behavior (for instance, cats that have not been eating consistently).
  3. They are comfortable in their cages. Super shy cats aren’t going to benefit from being thrown into a new environment. Even cats that have been improving in behavior in their cages are sometimes not allowed out so that they don’t regress.
  4. They haven’t had a recent surgery. Neutered cats have to wait 2 days and spayed cats have to wait 7 days before being able to join or re-join playgroup.
  5. Any cat that is adopted or on hold for someone is not allowed unless the new owner has specifically requested they be tried in playgroup (for liability reasons).
  6. Cats that we know for a fact hate other cats. If that information is unavailable, we use playgroup to test and find out. (That’s why we have the hawk gloves…if a cat becomes defensive and we need to remove them from the room, it’s protection against re-directed aggression. We don’t want cats or humans harmed!)

Once we’ve figured all that out, then comes the fun part! As soon as the cats are out and about, we let them play, we let them relax, we let them climb up to the windowsill and look out at the world! We let them play with each other (as long as it doesn’t get too rough); if they aren’t enjoying playgroup, we return them to their cage. If the other cats aren’t enjoying them, we sometimes place them in a solitary run. In playgroup, it’s all about the group!

Then, after all is settled in, we place the cats into one of four categories, in order to let the staff and other volunteers know how they did with each other:

Group 1: Likes Other Cats & Playful
These are the cats that actively seek interaction with other cats. They like to play with other cats, either by chasing around toys with each other, or even chasing each other! These are usually the more energetic cats who often need the companionship of another cat to diffuse some of that playfulness throughout the day.

Group 2: Likes Other Cats
Similarly, these cats actively seek interaction with other cats, or respond positively when other cats interact with them. The main difference is that they aren’t as active; at least, they don’t seek playtime with other cats. These are usually the more mellow, sometimes shyer cats, who are happy to curl up next to their feline friend for a nap but don’t necessarily want another cat pouncing on them.

Group 3: Tolerant
Tolerant cats are ones that are okay being in the same room as other cats, but need their space, too. They may occasionally hiss or growl to establish their boundaries, and may even give a swat if another cat gets too in their face, but they are not aggressive toward other cats. They are comfortable in the environment, and usually watch the other cats while keeping to themselves. These cats could possibly be introduced to another cat in a home, but with a slow introduction and the right personality match.

Group 4: Not Ready Yet
These cats aren’t comfortable in playgroup, and are usually returned to their cage before play time is over. It could be a number of things: they really don’t like other cats, are overwhelmed by the change in environment, or lack the confidence to participate. Group 4 cats will either “shut down” (hide, bury themselves in a person’s lap) or hiss, growl, yowl, or otherwise show/vocalize their discomfort.

It’s important to give each cat enough time to acclimatize themselves to the playgroup space before placing them in a group. Our playgroup lasts two hours, and sometimes a cat will start off in group 4, and by the end be placed in group 2. However, if a cat is clearly uncomfortable and doesn’t seem to be benefiting from the experience, it’s important to not stress them out and instead return them to their cage. Also, if a cat is overwhelmed by the environment, but has had clear interactions with another cat that indicate like or dislike, the cat can be returned to its cage, since enough information has been gathered to place them in a group. Remember: cats are environment-sensitive animals! Just because a cat doesn’t do well in playgroup, doesn’t mean it’s not a wonderful companion!

It’s also important to keep an open mind. My fellow volunteers and I have on many occasions been adamant that a certain cat would do badly in playgroup. But the other person will insist on giving them a try and voila! The cat does wonderfully. It’s also happened in reverse. Just because a cat seems to like or dislike other cats in their cage, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Of course, since cats can react badly toward other cats, we keep a very close eye on each new arrival to the group and are prepared to immediately remove them if they show signs of aggression or extreme discomfort.

Playgroup is wonderful because it gives us a much better sense of what type of cats we have in our shelter. Many adopters come in looking for a companion cat, and we are able to point them to whichever cats we have that we think would be a good match for their cat at home. And if someone comes in looking to own only one cat, we can match them up with our cats that would prefer to live in a single-cat household.

But I have to say, the best part of cat playgroup is, of course, the play!

Read the official article on cat playgroup on the Animal Rescue League of Boston’s official website (by Diane Toomey): http://home.arlboston.org/2011/07/05/and-then-there-were-the-cats/

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7 thoughts on “It’s Time for Playgroup!

  1. I have to admit…reading your blog motivates me more to help out at the local shelter in my town. I love cats so much (well all animals) and unfortunately I don’t have much of a filter (meaning, leaving my feelings at the door when I have to go home….) – but maybe I can DO it! Thank you for sharing what moves you.

    • That’s wonderful! Even if you start with just a couple hours a week, it’s such a huge help. And you only go as emotionally deep as you dare to… for a long time, I really only socialized with cats that were in the adoption center, because I wasn’t sure I could handle the possibility of cat I’d worked with “not making it” (for behavioral or medical reasons). But even when you do become emotionally invested, there are bad days and there are really good days, and some days where both really good and really bad things happen…and I find that it makes me a more caring and compassionate person in my life outside the shelter.

      • I just got back from the shelter! I can’t believe I signed the paperwork. I’m humming and hawing already about “I don’t know if I can do this!” – the orientation is tomorrow…and I don’t have to commit to anything yet. As I was leaving I went by the room/window where they have the cats/older kittens and I noticed a tuxedo cat named “Grouchi”. I LOVE it! And…a different tuxedo cat came over to me (through the open window) and said bye to me as I was leaving. 🙂

    • We all loved Magoo! The orange cat in the photo isn’t Magoo, it’s one of a pair of orange cats we had back in April… but I agree, they look like twins! If you haven’t already, we’d love to see a photo of Magoo on our ARL facebook page (or you can send it in via email) 🙂

  2. Pingback: What I Owe to a Cat Named Patti | Alcohol Cats

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