In late 2005 the McLeod County Commissioners decided to allow the Heart of Minnesota Animal Shelter to use the house located on the McLeod County Fairgrounds. The shelter decided to move our cat population to the house in an effort to free up space for families to get to know our cats and dogs, and also to provide the cats with a quieter, more home-like environment. Another major benefit to the house was that its smaller rooms gave me the chance to pursue one of my pet projects: a colony room for our cats. The idea behind colony rooms is that a group of cats who get along live together in one large room instead of living in individual smaller apartments or condos. When done correctly colony rooms offer more space for activity and social interaction and often increases adoption rates. The pitfalls mostly involve picking cats who will get along well and not add stress to the group, and in making sure no communicable diseases are introduced.
It took a lot of hard work by dozens of volunteers to transform the old farmhouse into an appropriate setting for housing dozens of felines safely and efficiently - floors, plumbing, and HVAC systems all needed upgrades and much TLC. The colony room was a low-priority effort, but by the spring of 2006 I was ready to pitch my case. Since shelter cat populations vary widely with each summer's kitten influx it was decided that we would need to ensure that the room could be transformed back into a traditional housing area with individual apartments and condos. We decided to leave one set of apartments in the room, and like most colony room projects we added shelves, PVC jungle gyms, chairs and benches, and an aquarium (or kitty television as we call it.) Our color scheme used shades of blue, yellow, and green since feline vision is tuned to those colors. In total we spent about $150 for the room plus an equal amount in donated time and materials.
Here are a few pictures of the final product:
A few years later we created a second full time colony room, here are its pictures:
And in 2016 a couple volunteers repainted the original colony room and added some splashy graphics that look great:
Over the years a number of organizations have asked me for advice and tips when building colony rooms, here are my notes from those conversations - if you're interested feel free to drop me a note, I'm always happy to talk to people about kitties.
The rooms are 11 feet by 12 feet, you can see in the pictures that we added shelves and lots of places for the kitties to separate themselves if they want. Since our kitty building isn't a purpose-built building its walls are drywall, we used high-quality paint that could withstand occasional scrubbing and it's been OK. After ~10 years it could probably use another coat, but we only have a couple months a year to do such projects when our population is low. Sometimes on days when I've got a sizable pool of young volunteers I put a few of them at a time on "booger patrol" looking for any spots on the walls - it isn't fun but we let them name all the new kitties too so they're usually happy enough with the tradeoff.
We usually have 4-6 cats at a time, the only limitations are that they need to be healthy and at least 6 months old - and of course they need to have compatible energy levels and temperaments. The makeup of the room usually changes seasonally, late summer and fall it's 6-8 month olds who need space and friends to burn off energy while promoting them some (since they need to "compete" with little kittens for people's attention). In the winter and spring it's often older cats who's stays at our shelter are longer and who enjoy the comfy spots to curl up with friends. We usually avoid putting shy kitties in the colony room - although they benefit too they are rarely noticed by people because of all the hiding spots. Those kitties seem to find homes faster in our normal "apartments" because we can be sure to point them out.
For introductions we use a free-standing wire "condo" that the new kitty goes in for a few days with supervised out-of-condo visitation when volunteers are present, then a couple more days of out-time in the mornings when staff is cleaning, and that's usually sufficient if everything goes ok. Our turnover is slow enough that that works for us. I suspect that its different for shelters that only or mostly have colony rooms, we can be "picky" about who we introduce because most of our cats are in normal apartments. We usually add kitties as needed, but are never in a hurry to do so, and certainly have taken all the kitties out and started over if we were making big shifts in personality. We also run the colony rooms at lower populations of 2-3 kitties if that seems like the right thing to do... and as noted we try not to rush the introduction process, better to have under-used space than unhappy kitties.
We have 3 big covered litter boxes in 2-3 different spots around the colony room and that's been OK for the usual complement of 4-6 kitties. They have scoopable litter and are cleaned every day, the floors and water/food dishes are also maintained daily. Every week blankets and hammocks get changed, or as needed. There are bird feeders outside each window, although its the squirrels that seem to benefit most from our presents.
The doors started out as normal screen doors, but we quickly discovered that normal window screen didn't last so it was replaced/upgraded with what most home supply stores call hardware cloth, and that has proven to be indestructible. My early photos don't show it but we eventually covered the bottom portion of the doors so they couldn't see cats walking around in the hallway (and vice-versa). Since we have designated "greeter" cats wandering around throughout the day we occasionally had stand-offs and other stress-causing interactions between cats on either side of the doors before covering the bottoms. Now people can see in, the kitties can climb the doors and talk to approaching visitors without damage but still not see the floor outside (and vice-versa). We also ended up adding little hooks to the doors so we can latch them closed when we're not there since big kitties can easily push open the doors in spite of the springs. Speaking of doors we ended up moving the cork boards with descriptions/photos to the hallway outside because the kitties were too hard on them when inside the room.
Links and Information on Setting up Cat Colony Rooms:
Last Updated: 6/26/2016 - Anthony Anderberg - firstname.lastname@example.org