Human/Animal Bond

How to Love your Local Shelter

A shelter is a community’s animal resource center

Published: October 24, 2016

shelter dog Spindel

Dr. Miranda Spindel
I'm a shelter veterinarian.

Although it has been many years now, I still clearly remember the first time someone told me they couldn’t do what I do “because they love animals too much,". Almost every shelter worker, and probably most veterinarians, have heard this overused phrase. Yet it still triggers a reaction in our often well-encased hearts. Shelter veterinarians are usually the kindest of souls doing some of the least understood and emotionally challenging work around.

Animal shelters can be overwhelming. Trust me, I understand that all too well.

We listen to people say they couldn't do what we do and we certainly empathize, but we know what it really means when someone says that. It means they won’t be visiting an animal shelter any time soon. It means one less potential chance for one of our beloved patients to get out of the shelter alive.

Some people may picture the shelter as a depressing place where animals are left to languish in cages and be afraid to visit. I think of shelters as a place to go when someone wants a new companion or needs help keeping their current pet; to me a shelter is the community’s animal resource center. Many shelters are really quite welcoming, modern and clean and house animals that are well cared for.

Did you know that October is “Adopt a Shelter Dog” month? "Adopt a Shelter Cat" month is in June. These annual events have been celebrated for decades since being established by the American Humane Association. Although many things have changed in animal welfare over recent years, including recognizing shelter medicine as a specialized area of veterinary medicine, the reasons behind the annual “Adopt a Dog/Cat” events have not. There are still millions of dogs and cats without homes, many of whom will not leave the shelter alive. Whether you are actually ready to bring home a new dog or cat now, or perhaps the idea is just percolating, “Adopt a Shelter Dog” month is a great incentive to visit your local animal welfare agencies, learn more about the people who work there, the animals they care for, and the organizations themselves.

There are many factors to learn about and consider before adopting. Ultimately, a successful adopter should not only feel great about the dog or puppy they are bringing home, but also about the organization they’ve chosen to adopt from. Here are 5 tips to finding a great shelter for your next adoption.

  • Before visiting, consider asking your regular veterinarian for opinions about the local shelters. Chances are, she's examined animals from most of the nearby facilities that other clients have recently adopted. He will have opinions about the health and well-being of newly adopted animals and shelter operations. It can also be useful to ask friends what their experiences have been.

  • Forming a well-rounded picture of how a community serves its homeless animals and where your own philosophies fall requires visiting and learning about each organization firsthand. Most areas have more than one animal welfare organization and each one may have different missions and philosophies. Municipal agencies operate on government contracts to care for stray and unwanted animals and enforce animal-related regulations. Municipal shelters are generally required to be open-door - where all animals are accepted - and often are woefully limited in resources. Many cities also have one or more private, non-profit organizations that may be open-door or may function as a limited admission shelter where animals are only accepted based on set criteria. Rescues, foster agencies, sanctuaries, and other groups are also common.

  • Keep an open mind. It can be tempting to fall into the mindset that the reputed “kill shelter” is a bad place and the “no-kill shelter” is the good place. These black and white terms can be quite deceiving. Typically, euthanasia happens in both places. In most cases, groups that might be labeled in these ways actually work closely together and rely on each other to save the same pool of needy animals in a community. Most kill shelters are open-door, high-intake facilities where tens of thousands of animals enter annually. Most no-kill facilities limit intake. Both types of agencies have a somewhat symbiotic relationship. While certainly one may align with a particular agency’s philosophy, it is naïve to do so based solely on a belief that euthanasia rates decrease in a community because of this decision.

  • Ask yourself what your needs, expectations, and goals are because shelters vary widely in the spectrum of care offered to their animals. While many have staff veterinarians, some have consulting veterinarians, and there are plenty that operate without any veterinary relationships at all. For some, the aim may be directly saving an animal most at risk. In this instance, a high-intake municipal shelter would be ideal. No one needs support and help more than the shelter that has a high euthanasia rate. Generally, these facilities can be busy without as much ability to provide one-on-one adoption counseling. Animals may have short stays, and not be as well known by their busy caretakers. Health issues may not have been fully addressed. If you need some handholding, are not experienced with dogs, or prefer to know a lot of information about a dog, a smaller, limited intake facility may be a better option.

  • Learn about the Association of Shelter Veterinarians Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters.  This white paper sets out minimum standards of care for animal shelters in a format that is meant for pet owners to understand. Some people might feel uncomfortable supporting a shelter that is not meeting certain recognized minimum standards of care. For example, if a group did not vaccinate its animals on intake, which is an acknowledged standard of care, the population becomes at risk for life-threatening diseases such as canine distemper or feline panleukopenia. Adopting an animal from a situation like this may be a greater risk than many are willing to take, and seeking shelters that meet this basic criteria becomes a goal.

    Ultimately, by talking to the people who work at your local shelter, touring the facility, and visiting the animals that are housed there, you may be surprised by what you discover. May you love your visit, learn something unexpected, and perhaps even leave with a new dog!

1 Comment

Barbara Duno
January 2, 2017

Also consider volunteering.

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