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Objectives: Non-surgical contraceptives are under development to provide accessible, affordable and humane alternatives for the management of free-roaming cat populations. The objective of this project was to develop a research approach for promising non-surgical contraceptives using outbred cats in a simulated free-roaming setting, meeting high standards for both animal welfare and scientific rigor.

Methods: A facility, specially constructed with indoor and outdoor living areas, was approved and regulated as both an animal shelter and a United States Department of Agriculture research facility. Thirty female and five male cats, healthy but at high risk of euthanasia, were recruited from animal shelters and private homes. Guided by a detailed protocol, cats were housed in this facility for up to 18 months after acclimatization. Cats were administered the study product or a placebo, and then entered into a breeding trial. Cats were adopted at the end of the study. A range of methods was used to provide enrichment and balance a natural environment with the need for detailed daily monitoring.

Results: Primary study results related to contraceptive safety and efficacy are published separately. Achieving a research model that is an intermediate step between a laboratory and an uncontained free-roaming cat colony was complex. Significant learnings shared in this current publication span: the selection of cats; acclimatization to a simulated colony environment; cat behavioral training during the study and in preparation for adoption; disease management; contract staff and volunteer support; and cat behavior throughout a breeding study.

Conclusions and relevance: This model inspires continued movement away from the paradigm of breeding cats for research and instead sources existing cats at risk for euthanasia. The housing and management of the cats elevates research animals' quality of life and provides positive post-study outcomes. While not appropriate for every feline research scenario, this hybrid model (between a laboratory and field study) proved to be a practical, humane and reliable scenario for research requiring a simulated real-world environment.

Keywords: Adoption; breeding trial; colony; communal housing; contraceptive; enrichment; field trial; free-roaming; laboratory animal; socialization; training.