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Professional Version

Management of Animals in Shelter Medicine


Martha Smith-Blackmore

, DVM, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2021 | Modified Nov 2022

Stress Management for Animals in Shelter Medicine

Reducing stressors for shelter animals reduces infectious disease transmission and improves animal welfare and human safety. General stress reduction programs can be augmented by tailored stress reduction responses for individual animals. General stress reduction programs should provide enrichment through exercise; time with people; time with conspecifics; olfactory opportunities; playing of soft, calming music; and use of feeding puzzles as appropriate for each animal. Other important measures include reducing extraneous noise, providing animals with the opportunity to hide, and giving animals a sense of control over their environment by providing choices as much as possible. Some individual animals may benefit from anxiolytic medications such as trazodone for a transitional period after arrival at the facility.

Population Management in Shelter Medicine

Every organization has a threshold capacity for care, and this capacity is based on more than the number of cages in the facility. Capacity for care does not refer to a shelter’s holding capacity, but rather, the overall ability of the shelter to provide humane care during each animal’s stay. Capacity is determined by the housing and care needed for various populations, such as animals for adoption, animals on stray hold, animals awaiting court decisions, animals undergoing medical or behavioral rehabilitation, or animals remaining for sanctuary (lifetime care).

In most cases, the most humane, welfare-oriented accommodation is to house each animal in its own primary enclosure. Sometimes bonded pairs, litters, or shelter-matched pairs of individuals may do better when co-housed. Each animal will need a specified care program to meet its particular needs, including intake evaluation, daily feeding and cleaning, exercise and enrichment, medical and surgical care, and adoption or transfer meetings. With careful review, required staffing can be calculated on the basis of how much time each task should take on average, multiplied by the number of animals and the frequency of each activity. Such calculation helps determine how many people, in what roles (eg, shelter, behavior, veterinary staff, volunteers) are needed to meet the needs of each animal, each day.

Volunteer programs can appreciably increase capacity for care; however, volunteers require and deserve as much training, supervision, and other resources as are provided to employees. Increasing volunteer participants means increasing resources to support those individuals. Many shelters use volunteers to assist with direct animal care, behavior evaluations, socialization, animal training, adoptions, and even training and supervision of other volunteers. A cadre of foster homes that specialize in certain needs, such as bottle-raising orphaned kittens, or teaching manners to boisterous adolescent dogs, can be especially useful. It is important to remember that the expanded capacity created by foster homes increases the need for staff or volunteers to handle communication and to coordinate visits for veterinary care and adoptions.

Animal adoption policies may be shaped by the mission or mandate of the organization. Some policies are very restrictive, such as “no first-time dog owners,” “breed experience required,” or “fenced yard required.” Such overly prescriptive edicts slow animal flow through the shelter facility. Good animal welfare can be achieved in a variety of settings by various methods. With customer service in mind, open dialogue about an adopter’s needs and resources and an individual animal’s personality and needs can help identify a safe and lasting placement without relying on strict and potentially irrelevant rules.

Whether animals are identified as “adoptable” depends on the agency; however, it is not appropriate to place animals if they are dangerous or irredeemably suffering. Most individuals in the community expect that animal-sheltering organizations make every effort to find placement options for the animals in their care. However, shelters require discretion to make the best decisions for animals and the communities in which they live, in the context of the shelter’s resources.

All adopted animals should be ensured a continuum of care. Adopters should be educated about the animal’s lifestyle and veterinary needs. The animal shelter should seek written agreement that the animal will see a veterinarian for a post-adoption exam to establish a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship and to develop a medical plan for ongoing and routine preventive care.

Working With Animal Rescue Organization Partners in Shelter Medicine

Transfer programs increase placement options for animals. Some rescue organizations specialize in a breed or type of animal, such as neonates or geriatrics. Others are dedicated to animals with special medical or behavioral needs. Sometimes, transferring an animal that has been languishing in one shelter to another facility exposes the animal to new eyes and facilitates a quick placement.

It is important to get to know rescue partners—their policies, facilities, and abilities. Any transfer program should start slowly, with identified responsible contact people at both ends, and a memorandum of understanding to ensure clear communication about which organization is responsible for each aspect of animal care before transfer. Feedback from receiving organizations about successful placements is a positive morale booster for both agencies.

Wildlife Housing and Rehabilitation in Shelter Medicine

Wildlife rehabilitation is a specialty unto itself. Some animal-sheltering facilities may undertake wildlife rehabilitation; however, issues pertaining to wildlife and their hybrids are complex and vary to some extent from state to state. Local regulations may limit wildlife sheltering to licensed rehabilitation specialists. As such, consulting with the state wildlife management agency is the best place to start when faced with a wildlife species in need of care.

Rehabilitation of wildlife in animal shelters is difficult because special considerations must be made to separate predator species from prey species and because appropriate diets, climatic conditions, and housing are required. Wildlife species pose increased risks of serious or fatal zoonotic diseases such as rabies, Salmonellosis, and infection withBaylisascaris procyonis, the raccoon roundworm. Most animal-sheltering facilities can provide emergency stabilization and transfer to a wildlife veterinary facility, or humane euthanasia.

Euthanasia Policies in Shelter Medicine

Euthanasia should be a last option to spare animals from further hardship and suffering. Euthanasia decisions, even for animals with severe behavioral or medical issues can be contentious for the shelter, volunteers, and local community. It is important to be forthright about euthanasia practices and policies during the hiring and onboarding process for staff and volunteers.

Euthanasia of shelter animals is a procedure that requires dignity and respect for the animal being euthanized. Staff performing euthanasia must be adequately trained in all aspects. The preferred method for euthanasia of shelter animals is the injection of sodium pentobarbital. Veterinarians can work with animal shelters to develop training programs, pre-euthanasia gentle handling and sedation protocols, and euthanasia methods. Some states mandate certification for technicians involved in performing euthanasia.

Consistently following a clearly articulated euthanasia decision-making process can reduce negative morale impact on staff and volunteers. Specific operating procedures, transparency, and consistency are crucial. Transparent and consistent communication of outcomes, data, and trends also assist with community relations.

Staff and Volunteer Stress Management in Shelter Medicine

Animal shelter work can be emotionally draining, and people may be attracted to the work especially because they have a giving or caring type of personality. These personalities may be at increased risk for emotional harm from animal shelter work. It is essential that animal shelter management, employees, and volunteers receive training about compassion fatigue and burnout so that they can recognize signs of distress in themselves and those around them. Signs of burnout include anger, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, feelings of ineffectiveness and negativity, headaches, stomachaches, irritability, and trouble sleeping.

Good nutrition, regular exercise, meditation, and attending animal welfare conferences can help diffuse the impact of the stresses associated with animal welfare work. Staff should be encouraged to make the most of their time off and not pursue animal rescue activities around the clock. Staff do not have to be in a direct caregiving role to suffer vicarious trauma from the emotional work at the animal shelter. Employee assistance programs can provide confidential assessment, referral, and short-term counseling services to employees and, in some cases, volunteers.

Animal Shelter Design

Animal shelter veterinarians play an important role in the development of animal shelter facilities, with input on how to reduce disease transmission and decrease stress for animal occupants. Considerations must be given to activities, capacity (how many animals and people will be expected to be in the building at any given time, what types of activities they will be engaged in), materials (durability, ability for cleaning and disinfection, comfort [eg, surfaces that are comfortable for dogs to walk across]), light, sound control, ventilation, visual stimulation, and visitor and population flow. Different populations of animals—such as animals on view and available for adoption, animals away from public view on stray-hold time, dogs on longterm hold pending hearings about dangerous behavior or law enforcement investigations, animals under veterinary care, and those isolated or quarantined for infectious disease—will have differing needs.

Shelter design should accommodate the behavior needs of animals to include enriched space for single-housed and group-housed animals with opportunities for retreat, as well as features to enable safe animal handling. It is essential to bear in mind that the capacity for an animal shelter is determined not only by the number of animals the building can hold but also by the size and ability of the staff. Good animal shelter design accommodates ample work, meeting, training, and break space for the human occupants as well.

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