EFFECTS OF BRITISH QUARANTINE ON CATS - THREE CASE STUDIES
The following are case studies of the effect of six months quarantine on cats entering the UK. While quarantine may be necessary to protect Britain's pets (approx 90% of cats in Britain are free-roaming) and wildlife from rabies and other diseases, it can be a traumatic experience. Cats a naturally curious animals and there is much argument for enrichment of quarantined cats' environments to prevent depression, neurotic behaviour and de-socialisation with humans. Without wishing to become involved in the pros and cons, I present the following case studies from the Chelmsford, Essex area; the cats all ended up in a cat shelter. These formed part of a survey.
Pedro, aged approx 3-4 years, was imported from Mexico. His owner had finished a three year stint in Mexico and had adopted Pedro, a street cat, because of his deformed forelegs (Munchkin-type foreshortening of forelegs). She had had him neutered and vaccinated. He was apparently affectionate towards his caregiver in Mexico. There is no real information about his behaviour while in quarantine, except that he was withdrawn and generally unapproachable, resenting human attention. After his quarantine period had finished he went to his owner’s Southend home.
Pedro proved to be a Jekyll and Hyde character, one moment allowing his owner to pet him, the next moment attacking her. At one point he held her (and her partner) at bay against an internal door. The attack led to the partner suffering lacerations of the arm while trying to protect himself. This was after only a few days, hence he could not yet be allowed outdoors. He came to the shelter, the only other alternative being destruction, with the owner paying towards his upkeep in a feral cats’ communal enclosure. Staff at the shelter had to dismantle the carrier in order to release him as he was so unhandleable.
Pedro proved to be highly intelligent and needed plenty of stimulation. Shelter staff surmised that he had been extremely bored in quarantine which had led to much of his behaviour. They also discovered that, prior to coming to the UK, he had never been confined indoors let alone in a pen and was basically a semi-feral cat who allowed contact on his own grounds although he was genuinely affectionate towards his ‘owner’ while in Mexico. Pedro was indifferent to other cats in the pen suggesting he had been used to a colony situation. "Solitary confinement" in quarantine was therefore doubly traumatic - boredom and lack of feline companionship.
After several weeks Pedro allowed helpers to pet him and would sit on laps, but was still liable to bite both to get attention and when he wanted to end the petting session. Instances of genuine aggression declined, but he was not to be trusted during petting. Although the shelter is a no-kill establishment and the communal pen provided feline and human company and a reasonably interesting environment, it was eager to find Pedro a more stimulating environment e.g. on a farm or at stables where he could roam more widely.
Pedro was homed to a farm, being deemed unsuitable as a household pet. The period of solitary confinement of a quarantine pen had undone the small amount of socialisation done while he was in Mexico. He was reported to be happy as a farm cat and enters the house on his own terms, allowing petting on his own terms. Pedro never regained the affectionate aspect of his character.
The shelter have no firm evidence that Silver had been through quarantine, but circumstantial evidence strongly suggested that he came to the UK with an American family. He was tentatively identified as a silver classic tabby American Shorthair and was a stunning cat regardless of breed status. Silver was aged approx 4 years and had obviously been neutered prior to maturity but not declawed (this would have confirmed his origins).
Silver was picked up as a stray in a pub car park where he had lived for a few weeks, but had evidently been a pet. His adopters had 2 children, neither of whom could touch the cat. The wife was afraid of Silver, though he could be handled by her husband. Silver had a tendency to attack human hands, legs and feet viewing them as threatening rather than as play/prey. He also killed the family ‘s chickens by breaking into the pen and dragging his victims to the top of a 6 foot fence and was brought to the shelter after attacking the pet rabbit - breaking into its hutch.
His behaviour suggested that he was once a very loving cat, but had somehow become ‘unbalanced’. I asked the advice of pet behaviour expert Peter Neville (who was at the Supreme Show that year) and his comment was that quarantine can have that effect on a cat - his description was ‘psychotic’ which applied perfectly to Silver. Possibly Silver had been further unbalanced by adapting from a traditional American indoor lifestyle to an outdoor lifestyle, although he showed himself to be an able hunter. It was not always possible to distract Silver with a toy or with food.
At the shelter Silver was aggressive enough to be placed in solitary confinement in a pen with its own run. This was within sight of other pens, of human areas and of a horse-field, providing plenty for Silver to see and humans could interact vocally through the safety of the mesh. After several weeks of attacking feeders and cleaners he began to re-socialise with people and could be handled - albeit with caution! He was anti-social towards cats.
Although Silver calmed down enough to be homed as a house-pet, it had to be a rural home with no other cats in the vicinity and a ready supply of wildlife for him to attack. Silver’s behaviour and subsequent re-socialisation was consistent with a quarantine stay as was the fact that he resembled an American Shorthair, a type not bred in the UK and which could only have arrived as an import. Regardless of pedigree or lack thereof, this cat could have been a real showstopper had he not become unbalanced by his experiences.
INDY & ZEBEDEE (France)
These days it may be possible to import cats from certain EU member states provided they are vaccinated and have been under house-arrest in their home country. Indy and Zebedee had to undergo the full 6 months quarantine and one of the cats proved to be FeLV positive.
These French cats (brother and sister) went into quarantine in time to be collected by their owner when she returned from France. Unfortunately, she decided to remain in France and the cats remained in cattery care before coming to the shelter after a period of 8 months. They had spent 8 months in a quarantine pen and had not been visited by their owner during that time.
Both cats had been neutered prior to maturity. They were affectionate towards each other. Both were nervous, wary of strange people, not at all outgoing or curious and had a tendency to bite, especially Zebedee (a male). Indy (female) was much more passive - withdrawn and resigned. Zebedee was difficult to handle during cleaning of pens; both had become unused to prolonged human attention and needed regular contact in order for them to regain confidence.
They were homed within a few weeks to a dedicated couple who knew about their background and who were willing to work hard, especially with Zebedee. Indy quickly became an affectionate and ‘normal’ cat. Zebedee did not tolerate prolonged petting and had a tendency to bite. Once allowed outdoors, Zebedee transferred this aggressive behaviour to other cats and had an unfortunate tendency to pick fights with larger and stronger cats. This required a course of hormones and sedative drugs to alter his behaviour both with humans and with cats other than Indy.
Although Indy quickly re-adapted to household life and was shy but not aggressive, Zebedee took much longer. He retained some residual aggression if handled for too long or not given something he wants, although this could well be his normal behaviour which was exacerbated by quarantine. The owners were concerned as to what would happen should the cats go to a cattery during a holiday.
Postscript: Unfortunately, one of the cats was found to have FeLV and the stage of the illness showed he must have been FeLV positive when brought into Britain. FeLV is something obviously not tested for in quarantine! Possibly he had always been territorial and had contracted the virus while fighting other cats in France (sadly he may have passed it on to stray cats near his new home in England). The surviving cat now lives indoors.
SUMMARY OF CASE STUDIES
In each case, the cats found the quarantine experience to be traumatic and emotionally disturbing although much of this could have been due to irregular visits by their owners - once a month or less often - and no provision of a familiar object e.g. towel carrying the owner’s scent to comfort them. I have no information as to the level of care provided by the quarantine catteries e.g. amount of handling by the staff (certainly minimal in the case of Pedro who did not tolerate handling by strangers). Indy and Zebedee had the company of each other but were withdrawn and, in the case of Indy, despondent after a total of 8 months in quarantine/cattery care. The others were de-socialised and psychotic.
A period of quarantine is necessary to protect our pets and wildlife, but perhaps should be of shorter duration, especially if the animal is microchipped/tattooed and has proof of rabies vaccination and perhaps no quarantine if the animal is from a rabies-free country. Shelters have tended to mop after the negative effects of quarantine and have also taken in cats because the emigrating owners believed it unfair on the cats to put them through quarantine at their destination.