Sheltering free-roaming, homeless or abandoned animals will not on its own solve the problem free-roaming populations in the long term. It may even make it worse, as it may be perceived as an easy route for pet owners to dispose of their animals rather than thinking of ways to provide for them.
Once the decision has been made to shelter animals it is our responsibility to ensure the animals sheltered are properly and humanely cared for. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians released Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters in 2010 and this lecture will be based mainly on these guidelines. The document was the first comprehensive report of its kind and is based on an exhaustive review of scientific literature by a task force of 14 shelter veterinarians.
The guidelines give shelters and communities an opportunity to review animal care, identify areas that need improvement, allocate resources and implement solutions so welfare is optimized, euthanasia is minimized, and suffering is prevented. It is essential that animal shelters take necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of animals, people and the environment in the shelter as well as in the community. An organization's mission should never be achieved at the expense of public health and safety. Animal shelters must maintain compliance with federal and state occupational and safety regulations regarding chemical, biological, and physical hazards in the workplace.
The foundation for the guidelines is the "Five Freedoms," developed in 1965 in the United Kingdom as a result of a report by the Brambell commission (which later became the Farm Animal Welfare Council) to address welfare concerns in agricultural settings. The Five Freedoms are now recognized to have much broader application across species.
The Five Freedoms are:
Freedom from hunger and thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
Freedom from discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
Freedom from pain, injury or disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Freedom to express normal behavior - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
Freedom from fear and distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
There are many ways to maintain a population within an organization's capacity for care regardless of whether they are kept in a shelter or home-based foster-rescue organization. Active population management is one of the foundations of sheltered animal health and well-being. This must be based on an appreciation that capacity to provide humane care has limits for every organization. When a population is not managed within an organization's capacity for care, other standards of care become difficult or impossible to maintain.
The capacity to provide humane care for sheltered animal depends on several factors such as:
The number and condition of animals admitted
The duration of stay
The size and condition of the facility
Staffing levels and training
The total number of reclaims, adoptions, transfers, release, or other outcomes
Operating beyond an organization's capacity for care is an unacceptable practice.
Good sanitation is an integral part of humane animal housing. Proper cleaning and disinfection practices help reduce the transmission of infectious diseases to both animals and people, and result in a cleaner and healthier environment. A clean shelter also has the added benefits of increasing the comfort level of the animals and presenting a positive image of the shelter to the public. Protocols for proper sanitation are essential for any sheltering program. Providing education and training as well as ensuring compliance with those protocols is also essential.
Spraying down kennels or cages while animals are inside them is an unacceptable practice.
Shelter medical programs must include veterinary supervision and the participation of trained staff to provide evaluation, preventive care, diagnosis and treatment. Disease prevention should be a priority, but appropriate treatment must also be provided in a timely fashion.
Preventive healthcare that is appropriate for each species should include protocols that strengthen resistance to disease and minimize exposure to pathogens. Training and continuing education for those who carry out the protocols must be provided. Shelter healthcare protocols should support individual animals regaining and maintaining a state of physical health and are essential for maintaining an overall healthy population by reducing the frequency and severity of disease. Individual animal welfare must be maintained within the balance of decisions and practices that support the overall population.
Each animal's individual health status should be evaluated and monitored beginning at intake and regularly thereafter. This allows any problems or changes that develop during an animal's shelter stay to be recognized, distinguished from preexisting conditions, and addressed.
Vaccines are vital lifesaving tools that must be used as part of a preventive shelter healthcare program. Vaccination protocols used for individual pets in homes are not adequate in most population settings. Because risk of disease exposure is often high in shelters, animals must be vaccinated at or prior to intake with core vaccines. Pregnancy and mild illness are not contraindications to administering core vaccines in most shelter settings because the risk from virulent pathogens in an unvaccinated animal would be far greater than the relatively low risk of problems posed by vaccination.
An emergency medical plan must be in place to provide appropriate and timely veterinary medical care for any animal who is injured, in distress, or showing signs of significant illness. Staff should be trained to recognize conditions that require emergency care. The emergency care plan must ensure that animals can receive proper veterinary medical care and pain management promptly (either on site or through transfer to another facility) or be humanely euthanized by qualified personnel as permitted by law.
Many animals entering shelters are infected with internal and external parasites. Though not always clinically apparent, parasites can be easily transmitted, cause significant disease and suffering, persist in the environment, and pose a risk to public health. Shelters have a responsibility to reduce risk of parasite transmission to humans and animals. An effective parasite control program should be designed with the supervision of a veterinarian. Animals should receive treatment for internal and external parasites common to the region and for any obvious detrimental parasite infection they are harboring. Treatment and prevention schedules should be guided by parasite lifecycles and surveillance testing to identify internal and external parasites that may be prevalent in the population. Ideally, animals should receive parasite prevention on entry and regularly throughout their shelter stay to prevent environmental contamination and minimize risk to people in the shelter.
Individual animal health and overall population health are interdependent. Without one the other cannot exist in most shelter settings. Shelter medical staff must therefore regularly monitor the status of individual animals and the population as a whole to allow for early detection of problems and prompt intervention. Ideally, shelters should also monitor and assess frequency of specific problems (e.g., upper respiratory infections, parvoviruses) set realistic goals, develop targeted strategies, and monitor the effectiveness of medical health programs, ultimately leading to better overall population management and individual animal welfare. Animal health plans must be reviewed in response to changes observed in animal health, illness or deaths.
Allowing animals with severe infectious disease to remain in the general population is unacceptable.
The structural and social environment, as well as opportunities for cognitive and physical activity, are important for all species of animals. An appropriate environment includes shelter and a comfortable resting area, in which animals are free from fear and distress and have the ability to express normal, species typical behaviors. Lack of control over one's environment is one of the most profound stressors for animals. The stress induced by even short-term confinement in an animal shelter can compromise health; and when confined long-term, animals frequently suffer due to chronic anxiety, social isolation, inadequate mental stimulation and lack of physical exercise. Proper behavioral healthcare is essential to reduce stress and suffering as well as to detect problem behaviors that may pose a safety risk to humans or other animals.
Long-term confinement of any animal, including feral or aggressive animals, who cannot be provided with basic care, daily enrichment and exercise without inducing stress, is unacceptable.
The use of physical force as punishment or use of force in anger is an unacceptable means of behavior modification; these methods are potentially harmful to the animal and dangerous for the staff.
Staff must be trained to recognize animal stress, pain, and suffering as well as successful adaptation to the shelter environment.
Random grouping of animals in shelters is an unacceptable practice. Animals must not be housed in the same enclosure simply because they arrived on the same day or because individual kennel space is insufficient. Unrelated or unfamiliar animals must not be combined in groups or pairs until after a health and behavior evaluation is performed; animals should be appropriately matched for age, sex, health, and behavioral compatibility. Unfamiliar animals should not be placed in group housing until sufficient time has been given to respond to core vaccines. Intact animals of breeding age should not be group housed. If group housing is utilized short-term for intact animals, they must be separated by gender. Sexually mature dogs and cats should be spayed/neutered and allowed sufficient recovery time prior to group housing.
Handling must always be as humane as possible and appropriate for the individual animal and situation. The minimal amount of physical restraint needed to accomplish the task without injury to people or animals should be used. Humane handling requires an appraisal of each animal's behavior, adequate numbers of properly trained staff, suitable equipment that is readily available and in good working condition, appropriate choice of location for procedures, personal protection such as gloves or push boards, and judicious use of tranquilizers.
Animal shelters should require that cats and dogs who are adopted into homes be spayed or neutered. Consideration must be given to individual animal health or circumstances that would create the need for an exception. Surgical sterilization (spaying or neutering) prior to release to adopters, including kittens and puppies as young as 6 weeks old, remains the most reliable and effective means of preventing unwanted reproduction of cats and dogs and decreasing their birthrates. When prompt, preplacement surgery is not available and other spaying or neutering programs (e.g., vouchers) are implemented, these programs should include an effective method of follow-up to confirm that the surgery has been completed.
Allowing shelter animals to breed is unacceptable.
Spaying or neutering cats and dogs awaiting adoption for more than a few weeks is strongly recommended as the rapid decline in spraying, marking, and fighting and the elimination of heat behavior and pregnancy, which can be expected following spaying or neutering will reduce animal stress.
Spaying or neutering surgery must be performed by veterinarians or veterinary students under the direct supervision of a veterinarian in compliance with all legal requirements.
When performing euthanasia in a shelter, each individual animal must be treated with respect. A veterinarian with appropriate training and expertise for the species involved should be consulted to ensure that proper procedures are used. Any euthanasia method used in a shelter must quickly induce loss of consciousness followed by death, while ensuring the death is as free from pain, distress, anxiety, or apprehension as possible. The euthanasia method must be reliable, irreversible and compatible with the species, age and health status of the animal. Any agent or method that is unacceptable according to the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals is also unacceptable for use in shelters. An assessment must be made of each animal's size, weight and temperament so the appropriate drug dose, needle and syringe size as well as restraint method can be used.
1. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians. Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters. http://oacu.od.nih.gov/disaster/ShelterGuide.pdf. (VIN editor: Original link modified 9-22-15.) 2010.