51 Cats Story (Part 3, Page 3)

Cat Systems

The systems which I am about to describe obviously do not yet exist. Although I have given them much thought over the years, I lack the funds and the cat-free space required to construct, test and refine my designs.

* Cat Playground Equipment

Cats are generally quite gregarious animals. They like to visit with each other and, for the most part, enjoy peacefully exploring their surroundings. If allowed to roam freely over a large area, they will usually adopt daily routines that keep them healthy and fit.

When indoor cats become bored from insufficient stimulation, they will often resort to playful stocking of other cats. This playful behavior is quite common and usually does not pose a problem unless the cat being chased is timid, takes it too seriously and becomes afraid.

Unfortunately, chasing a scaredy-cat is so much more exciting and can quickly turn into a nasty habit. The resulting intense, daily disruptions build up stress in the colony which can then lead to very unpleasant, stress-related behaviors, such as spraying. Providing more space for the cats to spread out can alleviate some of the stress, but it seems more responsible to restore the peace by discouraging or preventing this scaredy-cat chasing behavior.

One way to prevent boredom is to periodically swap out the different cat toys and place them in varying locations. This way, the toys will always seem new and interesting. Another way is to have plenty of kitty playground equipment spread throughout the facility which has attention-grabbing moving elements and sounds, activated either by the cat’s presence or automatically at regular intervals. Aside from the obvious feather and laser toys or bird baths and feeders viewable from a window, such equipment could include:

  • a glass-shielded flat-screen TV or monitor showing cats, fish, birds, mice or small moving objects
  • a tall, transparent wall with paper leaves or butterflies that blow around inside
  • a fully-enclosed marble-chute style game that uses hollow, light-weight, plastic balls which are too big to pull through the many cat-paw holes and slots
  • a network of snag-resistant-fabric tubes laying flat on the ground, through which carefully-timed balls are pulled back-and-forth on loops of wire, giving the illusion of a single mouse attempting to escape through tunnels.
  • A portion of a room designed like a large pinball machine where furry balls are shot into the air and roll along contoured surfaces toward a collection hole.

I bet there are many other more clever ideas out there for kitty playground equipment. Please feel free to share yours. I can use all the help I can get.

* Cat Doors

For those troublesome cats that still can’t seem to kick the chasing habit, and for those who don’t trust each other enough to get along, keeping them separated seems the only viable option. But, for the sake of exercise and their sense of freedom, keeping them permanently isolated from other parts of the sanctuary just doesn’t seem fair. One solution is to let the facility itself actively keep them separated as they wander.

This could be accomplished by first fitting each cat with a collar-tag containing a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) microchip. Then, through the use of carefully designed, computer-controlled cat doors, computer software could track each cat’s location and enforce segregation.

NOTE: Although I can not find any studies or cases that link subcutaneous malignant tumors to microchip implants in cats, some studies have shown a link in a small percentage of lab rats and mice. So for now, I shall choose caution over convenience, and use breakaway collars instead of implants.

For this sanctuary, there will be at least two cat doors built into every wall which separates isolated cat-areas. This means there could be six or more cat doors per room – two through the West wall, two through the East wall, and two through the South wall leading into the long hallway.

Each cat-door would consist of a tunnel built just wide enough and just tall enough to comfortably accommodate one large adult cat. As a cat casually enters the tunnel, its pet-chip will be activated to reveal the cat’s identify. If the cat receives authorization to pass, the door will quickly unlock allowing the cat to easily push through. If the cat is not authorized, the door will remain locked.

The most challenging part of the cat-door design is the system’s operation and the door shape and location within the tunnel. I’ve considered many variations such as having a single door-flap or a two door airlock design. Designs which accommodate typical cat operation are already in progress (see the Tweeting Cat Door and the CATaLOG Project). The challenge here lies in building a system that can safely and effectively handle all the unusual situations that can-and-will occur in a multi-cat facility. Such situations include power outages, collisions, tunnel and door blocking, running or chasing, mass panic and attempting to back up while partway through the door.

These cat doors are made more complicated by the need to accurately track and control each cat’s location. Cats are clever and determined animals. They will often expend much energy trying to circumvent our attempts to control them. For them, it is an amusing challenge. Developing an effective discriminating cat-door system is crucial to this free-roaming sanctuary concept. There will be safe-haven areas where overly rambunctious cats will not be allowed. It would be nice if I could guarantee that. I have given these doors much thought, and I am still not happy with my current concept. I’m wondering if I may be over-thinking it a bit.

My current cat door design now consists of a tunnel with a door at one end (the in tunnel), and another tunnel right next to it with a door at the opposite end (the out tunnel). This in-and-out style is similar to the doors that waiters use to enter and exit a restaurant kitchen. I suppose these tunnels don’t absolutely have to be located right next to each other, but I think it would be helpful during a fear-and-panic reaction if an exit was relatively close to where a new cat first entered the room.

This design consists of a pair of spring-loaded doors with a gap between them. This gap would be wide enough to allow the doors to fully close and lock even before the cat’s tail has cleared. Each door could be made out of thin, transparent acrylic, formed into a hollow, quarter-cylinder shape with very round edges. This rounded shape might allow a hesitant cat to successfully back up without the doors catching on it’s ribs or shoulder blades.

Cat Door Tunnels

These light-weight doors with smooth, rounded edges might also feel more comfortable to the cat as it pushes past them with its face. Then again, pushing against the doors with it’s cheek bones or eye sockets might actually be too uncomfortable, and running into a locked door might cause facial damage. Perhaps these doors should be automatic. (Maybe I’m being overly concerned.)

One Option: The room-side of the doors could be coated with a reflective material that would act as a one-way mirror. Cats inside the tunnel could still see through the doors as usual. But, cats in the room would be blocked by their own reflection if they headed toward the wrong tunnel. Without this reflective coating, a panicky cat might attempt to ram the familiar looking see-through doors in its desperation to escape. (Again, perhaps I’m being overly cautious.) Making the entry and exit points visually different may help to train the cats.

Another Option: Some playful troublemakers may choose to hangout near the doors and reach through the gap to play with anyone inside the tunnel, or they may try to pull the doors open. To discourage cats from door blocking, a proximity detector (like those in automatic doors at retail stores or in automatic sinks in public restrooms) could be used to sense when a cat is getting too close. Then, the system could lock the doors and activate bright-white L.E.D. lights until the cat leaves. A cat that is familiar with the system will know what’s coming and move away. However, if a cat chooses to linger, it will receive a short blast of compressed air to convince it to move. If it still refuses, a second longer blast is sent. If that doesn’t work, a third bast is sent with the air flow rapidly disrupted, creating an unpleasant, vibrating experience. If the cat still remains, human care givers will be called in to investigate. (For example, an object might have fallen by the door, but the system doesn’t know it’s not a cat.) Cats that linger too long inside the tunnel could also receive this compressed-air treatment free of charge to help encourage them to move along. Eventually, they all would learn that these cat doors are not playgrounds.

One Problem: The biggest problem that I have with all my cat door designs is how to handle situations where multiple cats are transiting too close together, such as during a panic. While one authorized cat is transiting, another cat may come up from behind and push its head through before the doors can close and lock. Once a cat figures out this technique, others could learn by observation, possibly rendering these doors useless. Perhaps lowering the ceiling to shoulder height would discourage overlapping. But, not all cats are the same height, and cats can crouch surprisingly low while on the move, especially when scared. If the system could somehow detect multiple cats and re-scan for pet-chips fast enough, this might not be such a problem. The tracking system would still know every cat’s location and care givers could be notified when a cat is in an unauthorized area.

Another Possible Problem: For my design, the cat door’s normal state is to remain unlocked. This way, cats are not trapped if the power goes out. When a cat first enters the tunnel, the doors lock as soon as the cat is detected, and they don’t unlock until authorization is received or the cat leaves. If an unauthorized cat is the first to enter a tunnel during a mass panic, I’m concerned about what might happen if too many cats squeeze into the locked tunnel at one time. I need a way to detect multiple cats (such as by weight perhaps) and release the door lock – assuming it can be released when there is pressure against the door.

This door concept is not perfect, but it’s a start. It will require much experimentation and observation.

* Cat Tracking System

Regardless of how foolproof these cat doors are eventually designed to be, there will always be the possibility of human error. For example, anytime a care giver opens a human door, cats may try to run past. If the cats are observed, they can be retrieved. But, there will be times when they pass unnoticed. And when this happens, the cat tracking system will not realize that some cats have just moved to a new location.

What if a cat was not observed sneaking into a seldom-used room that contains no cat exits. Or, what if a cat wandered unseen into a closet in an obscure location. In a sanctuary containing thick, sound-absorbing, natural-built walls and a large population of free-roaming cats, it’s possible that no one would notice for a very long time that one had gone missing.

But no worries. All cats must eat, drink and use the littler box sometime. And because of this fact, the cat tracking system becomes self-correcting and aware of any cats that may have become sick or even locked in a closet.

All cat doors and feeding, drinking and litter stations submit pet-chip serial numbers and usage data to the tracking system. This system then records every cat’s daily roaming patterns and personal habits and regularly compares them to past data. And, based on individual, veterinarian-determined deviation-limits, care givers are informed right away when something is amiss. This system is also designed to notice anything that may be medically pertinent and veterinarians can be notified via email to view the latest data over the Internet. This tracking system is in a sense an automated cat guardian.

Once all the cat doors and stations are designed, all that is required to complete this tracking system is a personal computer, some custom software and a network.

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