Animal shelters are busier than ever, receiving millions of animals each year. With many shelters meeting or exceeding their capacity, caring for such large numbers of animals can present varied challenges. While some shelters may be able to meet the demand and provide exceptional care for their animal residents, others are not equipped to handle this large influx. Unfortunately, these shelters may struggle to care for these animals, highlighting an underlying issue of what standards of care look like for animals housed in shelters.
Seeing the need for more resources in shelter animal care, in 2010, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV), in collaboration with other animal welfare organizations, created the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters to serve as a template for shelters to evaluate and improve their operations. While the Guidelines are not law, they are meant to be a way for shelters to evaluate their facilities, animal care, and management, and in turn, improve areas where they are able.
The Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters is currently one of the best resources for shelter standards of care. These Guidelines address operations in a way that divides up practices based on what is unacceptable, no matter the circumstances, minimum standards, strong suggestions, and optimal best practices. Unacceptable practices should be addressed first, then minimum standards of care, and continue up to best practices, if possible. Topics cover the entire of spectrum of operations, including management, facilities, sanitation, medical care and health, behavior, transportation, euthanasia, and more.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has also put together a resource to be used alongside the Guidelines, created by ASV. The Shelter Care Checklist can be utilized by animal shelters to further break down the ASV Guidelines into a tangible, easy to use checklist of items.
While it is easy to discuss best practices for shelters to implement into their operations for success, reality quickly sets in. Challenges arise from lack of funding, lack of space, difficulty with volunteer training and education, and more. Both large scale and small operations have unique struggles when it comes to implementing new management practices. While these challenges are noted, they do not have to be barriers to a simple, basic level of care for shelter animals.
Does the implementation of these guidelines for standards of care significantly improve animal welfare and shelter operations, and are they financially feasible?
There are studies supporting the utilization the Guidelines created by ASV to improve shelter practices. One case study, focusing on improving housing for shelter cats, yielded astounding observational results. By elevating feline cages off the ground, moving the intake area to a quiet place away from the dogs’ sounds and smells, providing portals between cages to increase living space, providing areas for perching and hiding, and other changes requiring little to no expense, the shelter greatly improved the quality of life for their feline residents. They also observed fewer signs of stress and increased display of natural behaviors. However, the true impact of this study cannot be fully portrayed since no data was collected or analyzed. Only volunteer observations and perceptions were recorded, but the results remain encouraging.
We, as veterinarians, can play an important role in shelter animal welfare. Not only are we responsible for their medical care, but we can also help shelters to create and implement standard operating procedures that support proper animal care practices, train and educate shelter employees and volunteers on best practices, and be a resource to consult when making operational decisions impacting animal care and wellbeing. It is our responsibility to stay informed on best practices for shelter animals in order to do our part to help provide the best possible care to our shelter patients and support animal shelters in their mission.