dvm360 Investigative Report: For the love of dog: The future of animal sheltering

August 24, 2018
Portia Stewart, Editor, Team Channel Director
Portia Stewart, Editor, Team Channel Director

Portia Stewart is a pun-loving editor who spends her days arguing the differences between cats and commas (commas are a pause at the end of a clause, while cats have the claws at the end of the paws). She is a minion to two cats and a dog.

As some shelters seek to fill their inventory of adoptable pets with animals from the south, veterinary professionals are posing the tough question: Whats next for animal shelters?

shutterstock.comIn cartoons and animal movies, it's not uncommon for shelters to be portrayed as a sort of animal jail, gray and cruel, where the only path out besides escape is the quick and brutal march to euthanasia. But this image belies all of the change and care veterinary professionals and animal rescue volunteers and advocates have invested in creating safe, comfortable spaces for animals. More and more, shelters are becoming waystations for pets' transitions from homelessness to loving homes.

Many potential pet owners see shelters and rescue groups as the only acceptable source for adoptable pets. So how are pet owners supposed to evaluate these sources and determine whether these sources are reputable? And when the shelter's primary responsibility shifts from being a source for dogs, how should the shelter shift its services to serve pets and pet owners?

“There are some animals that we feel could be adopted that aren't now,” says Apryl Steele, DVM, president and CEO of Dumb Friends League in Denver. She explains that the Dumb Friends League is building spaces to do more work with fearful dogs that would currently be dangerous if they were placed in homes. “If we had some really quiet places where we could work with them for four to eight weeks, we could make them trust again, and we could make them safe. So that's something we're working towards.”

Dr. Steele says they also don't currently place diabetic cats, but they do transfer some of them to a group that does placements for these special needs kitties. Pets with chronic diseases may also be new targets for adoption.

What else could the future of sheltering hold? Let's take a look at what some shelter and veterinary professionals wish for the future of animal welfare.

New opportunities for shelters

Jed Rogers, DVM, is CEO at Firehouse Animal Health Centers in Austin, Texas, and he previously served as senior vice president of animal health services for the ASPCA. In years past, he says the big focus for shelters has been on getting adoptable pets in homes. But the shifts in available dogs may be an opportunity for shelters to reimagine the services they offer. For example, shelters might focus instead on keeping adoptable pets in their homes. He points to programs like the ASPCA's Safety Net program, which works with communities to provide resources that may include one-on-one counseling, pet food banks, community vaccination clinics and spay/neuter services, pet help lines and more. Currently programs exist in communities in Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.

The prisoners of homelessness

What about the pets for which there is no home? The ones with behavioral issues, aversions to other animals or children, or chronic medical conditions? While there are increasingly more homes for special needs animals, some animals linger in long-term animal boarding for years waiting for an acceptable home.

“I think there are folks that through their passion sort of become blinded to this concept of happy, healthy life. Is that dog that's in a cage for years healthy and happy? I don't think so,” Jed Rogers, DVM, says. “The problem is, in the absence of resources to treat whatever that dog is going through, then the alternative is placing it into a home where it's going to get in trouble or euthanizing it, which I think a lot of people struggle with.

“You know, I think there are people out there for whom euthanasia is never an acceptable solution. And I disagree. I think if you're focusing on happy, healthy pets, I think if you have one that can't be happy and healthy in the homes that we have available, then I think euthanasia is actually a good outcome for that pet. I don't think there would be that many people who would be willing to say that, because I think they're scared of the backlash. … If an animal is suffering, then it's our responsibility to euthanize it. And I think there are a lot of people who shrink from that, but it's just the reality.”

 

Dr. Rogers says a positive trend he sees is the sheltering world becoming more organized. “It's always been a professional world, it's just now more organized in a very professional way,” he says. “To me, there's strength in that. You can have a better chance of doing a good job if you're sharing best practices and adhering to standards. And I think that that's led to a lot of success over time that's hard to track because the data, the consolidated, aggregated data, has been difficult to come by.”

The second positive trend he sees is a deepening relationship between some veterinary professionals in private practice and shelters.

“I see more and more veterinarians participating in a positive way with shelters and rescue groups in their community, and I think that's an awesome thing,” Dr. Rogers says. “I think that's a way we can all work together to benefit pets and people in our community.”

Dr. Rogers' practices work closely with animal shelters and rescue groups to provide services to support pet adoptions and rescue efforts. He says the key to successful relationships usually starts with identifying the services the shelter or rescue needs-and it's not always the same thing.

“We always spend a little time to get to know them and say how can we help you?” Dr. Rogers says. “And if they don't have any ideas, then we can say, OK, here are the four or five things we do with other shelters, are any of these interesting to you? And usually there's something there that clicks.”

For example, some rescue groups offer to reimburse the cost of the pet's adoption fee by offering free veterinary services at one of their practices. So if you paid $100 to adopt a dog, you'd receive $100 worth of free veterinary services.

Another way to help? Offering allowances for rescues and shelters to offer the care to bring pets to a place where they are adoptable.

“At the beginning of each year we give the shelters we work with a credit for services, a $5,000 or $10,000 credit, and then they can use it however they want throughout the year,” Dr. Rogers says. “If they have a complicated surgery they want done or a bunch of dental work or whatever, they can just use the credit.

“There are a hundred things a veterinarian can do with a shelter, so it's just a matter of taking the time to get to know each other and figure out what that relationship is going to look like.”

 

A new view on sheltering

For Nichole Boudreau, the director of shelter operations at Young-Williams Animal Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was a culture shock to leave the Bay Area humane society shelter she worked at for 10 years and take on a new job at a shelter in Tennessee. Young-Williams takes in more than 10,000 animals each year. Since she joined the organization two years ago, she's been working to change the attitudes and relationships in the community to support responsible pet ownership.

Dogs R Us: Evaluating adoption options

How should potential pet parents evaluate the source they're adopting their pet from? Whether it's a shelter, rescue group, breeder or another source, there are some critical factors to consider. First, can you see the medical records for the pet? Has the animal been spayed or neutered? If possible, walk through the shelter or home where the pet is living. Are there signs of upper respiratory infection or obvious disease?

For those working with breeders in particular, to guard against puppy mill pets it's important to meet the pet's parents and see where the parents and pups eat, sleep and live.

Apryl Steele, DVM, says a good practice is for the shelter to employ an adoption counselor to ask what you want to do with a pet, what your lifestyle is going to be like, and try to fit the right animal.

“On the flip side, there are some organizations that go way overboard. It's almost like no one can love this animal as much as I do, so I'm going to put all of these barriers to adoption, including I have to come to your home and look at it before you adopt a pet,” says Dr. Steele. “And studies show that it makes no difference in the positive or negative outcomes of that animal.”

Another red flag: the organization only adopts puppies.

“If they only do puppies, that's a problem usually. Look for complaints sent to regulatory agencies. You want to see medical records for the animal, and you want to know where the animals came from. They need to be willing to disclose that to you. They need to be willing to show you the CVI [certificate of veterinary inspection] or health certificate from the transfer if it's from out of state. And you want to make sure that the animal looks healthy,” Dr. Steele says. “I know that's a no-brainer, but it's amazing the number of people who want to adopt the animal because it's just the most pathetic looking animal that they've ever seen. It's probably good that that animal got a good home, but it's going to be expensive and it sometimes has a bad outcome.”

For pet parents wanting to adopt through pop-up adoption events, Dr. Steele advises them to look for adoption sites where the groups have been prescreened-for example, events at PetSmart and Petco locations. 

“If you really want to do something good by adopting an animal, go to a shelter or animal welfare organization that takes every animal that goes to it, that doesn't just cherry-pick a nice animal and then turn sick animals away,” says Dr. Steele.

“There was a mentality that owners are bad and we need to have open doors and take all of the animals from the people, even if it means putting them down,” Boudreau says. “Since I've been here I've been trying to change all that.”

She's helped implement a managed intake system with resources to work with pet owners to discover their issues with their pets and help resolve them. “We know we're just contributing to the cycle of poor pet ownership if we're just taking them in every time someone gets sick of having an animal or bumps against some behavior concerns,” Boudreau says.

The great no-kill debate

Apryl Steele, DVM, says she sees a disturbing trend in the no-kill animal movement where some advocates are pushing organizations to go no-kill if they want donor dollars. The challenge: this means the no-kill animal shelters may have to shut their doors to any animal that is not highly adoptable and send them down the street to the municipal shelters or a different shelter that takes every animal.

The result: the open admission shelters wind up with a 40 percent live release rate, while the no-kill animal shelter has a 96 percent live release rate. “But then the no-kill shelter doesn't have enough adoptable animals coming in from their community, so they start bringing them in from another community and taking up homes, while there are animals being euthanized less than a mile away that could have had a home,” she says.

If you're confused about the definition of no-kill shelters, you're not alone. There's no single definition that everyone agrees on.

“No-kill Colorado and No-kill Nation have said that a no-kill shelter is a shelter that adopts at least 90 percent of the animals that come to them,” Dr. Steele says. “And you can make that number-anybody can become a quote unquote no-kill shelter quickly-just by saying I'm not going to take any animal I can't adopt into my shelter. But what are they doing for preventing suffering and homelessness?”

Dr. Steele says this doesn't mean she thinks all no-kill shelters are bad. Her goal instead is to take a look at the goals and language. For example, calling a shelter a “kill” shelter is inflammatory.

“There are some [no-kill] groups doing really good work, and they're not attacking the other shelters and calling them kill shelters, because they're dealing with the problem that they're not accepting into their no-kill shelters,” Dr. Steele says.

Another concern is the arbitrary numbers assigned to the live release rates that do not consider the health and wellbeing of the animals that need sheltering.

“To have a set percentage that depends on the population that comes to you, that means if 12 percent of the animals that come to me are in end-of-life situations, to achieve a 90 percent live release rate two percent of those suffering animals would have to be allowed to suffer,” Dr. Steele says.

In communities like Denver where animals are increasingly desired and adoptable, animals that are healthy and behaviorally appropriate may be rehomed before they reach the shelter, because a friend or neighbor will take that animal. This can skew the adoptable populatoin in the shelter.

“If they have an animal that's sick or aggressive, nobody wants that animal. So the population that's coming to shelters in some communities is getting more and more toward the animals that are difficult to deal with,” Dr. Steele says. “I don't want to give people the impression we don't have highly adoptable, wonderful animals, because we do. But if you look at the overall population as animals are continuing to be more valued in the community, we're going to see a higher and higher percentage of animals that are coming to us that are more difficult or they need some life decisions that people aren't even able to make themselves.”

In the not-so-ancient past, in many communities shelters would take animals in, hold them for three days and if no one claimed them, they'd euthanize them. Adoption and foster programs didn't exist in the same fashion they do today.

“I think no-kill was a useful message to knock communities and policymakers out of that complacency that that was acceptable. But when you get above a 70 percent live release rate, it becomes a very detrimental, bullying-type movement. And it starts creating decisions that cause suffering and poorer outcomes,” Dr. Steele says. “And the other thing is, no-kill language basically by definition says if you're not a no-kill shelter you're a kill shelter, and people working at that shelter are killers. That's such a not OK thing to say.”

Jed Rogers, DVM, also struggles with the term “no-kill.”

“I actually wrote an article 15 years ago where I said there is no such thing as a no-kill, and I still believe that. I think no-kill is an aspiration. I think anybody who's involved in animal welfare aspires to saving every pet we possibly can,” Dr. Rogers says. “The only problem I have with no-kill is that it suggests that there are people out there in sheltering who want to kill, who really enjoy killing. And that just doesn't sit right with me. I've been doing this for 25 years, and I have yet to meet one person in my entire time doing this who enjoyed euthanizing an animal. Not one.”

Instead, he says the sheltering and rescue community should focus on getting as many adoptable pets into homes as possible-and keeping them in those homes.

She has a dedicated intake manager and a pet resource coordinator who fields all of the owner surrender calls. “The three of us went through the HSUS [Humane Society of the United States] cat behavior counseling course, so we have all those skills to help people manage litterbox issues and cat-on-cat issues and fear stuff and play aggression, things like that,” Boudreau says.

With the help of her new team and a progressive CEO, they've increased the save rate of the organization from about 67 percent to 84 percent at the end of the last year.

Boudreau is also focused on changing the attitudes of other groups involved in the animal sheltering community, including the animal control officers. She says her goal is to shift the attitudes a law enforcement focus to social services.

“I think it all starts with shifting the whole concept of what an animal shelter's role is in a community. I think that we need to get away from having people think of a shelter as somewhere to relinquish their pet for adoption,” Boudreau says. “We're in the business of housing, sheltering, rehabilitating and finding homes for stray animals that are never reclaimed by owners, despite a proactive effort on the shelter's part and animal control's part.”

To that end, Boudreau has been working closely with an organization called Mission Reunite, which has gifted Young-Williams with microchip scanners for their animal control trucks. This way animal control officers can scan loose pets in the field and drive the pet home instead of taking it to the shelter. This frees up resources at the shelter and makes space for pets that need sheltering.

Boudreau says her efforts are guided by three principles: keep pets out of the shelter as much as possible, reduce their length of stay, and remove any barriers to getting pets out of the shelter environment.

“So don't charge rescue groups pull fees, reduce the adoption fees, don't have crazy home visit requirements and vet record requirements for your adopters,” she says.

It also means talking to potential pet owners up front and offering guidance as they make pet ownership decisions. Boudreau offers this example. Say you're working with a potential adoptive family who says they want a backyard dog. Instead of immediately turning them down, she says it's important to fact-find. First, realize that if you turn them down, they're likely to obtain a dog somewhere else-Craigslist, anyone?

And if you haven't offered counseling and support, you're likely to end up with that dog in your shelter at some future date. Instead, with probing you might learn that someone in their family is allergic. This offers you the opportunity to suggest a breed that's less likely to trigger allergies-or even suggest another type of pet altogether.

“So it's on us. We have the biggest stake in this whole thing. We have to kill the animals we can't save. That's the end-all, be-all for me,” she says. “I don't want my staff to have to kill these animals because we don't have solutions or because we're too full.”

Rescues, shelters and vets can work together

In an ideal world, animal rescue organizations will find ways to work together to promote healthy relationships between pets and people.

“In Colorado, rescue groups have really taken off. Last year was the first year that adoptions through rescue groups really exceeded adoptions through shelters,” Dr. Steele says. “Rescues transferred in about 20,000 dogs, shelters 10,000, and the other 5,000 animals were cats, which had a similar ratio of rescues to shelters."

Breed rescues, she says, are the groups that are having more trouble, because there aren't as many purebreds that need homes. But the breed rescue groups also offer an opportunity for shelters. Dr. Steele uses the example of purebred German shepherds. They can be protective, especially some adult males, and it's important to know this breed to provide a good home for them.

“We will often transfer to a German shepherd rescue, even though we can put that dog on the floor and adopt it,” Dr. Steele says. “They have a following of people who really understand German shepherd behavior, and that will be the best outcome for that dog. We will transfer some of the breeds to rescues, especially if there's a particular behavior trait, because we'll have a better outcome with a little bit more education and a prescreened population to adopt them.”

On the flip side, breed rescues used to get most of their dogs from shelters, Dr. Steele says, and if there's a purebred that comes to a shelter it's adopted as fast as it can be adopted.

“A lot of the breed rescues we've seen in our community, the specific breed rescues, have really diminished. Whether they've gone away completely or they just handle way fewer dogs, it depends on the group.”

Like attracts like

Has social media set sheltering back? Sure, it's allowed like-minded rescuers to find each other, but Boudreau isn't so sure that's always a good thing.

“I think social media really hasn't done us any favors, because it's just so easy to find people who have your same point of view and just run with it,” she says. “So much of the philosophy changes that are happening in animal welfare are really around trust. I find that some of the smaller rescue groups that completely control their intake, they are pretty darned picky when it comes to adoptions. They don't think anyone's good enough for whatever reason, there's a lot of judgment that goes on, and they're completely reluctant to adopt an open philosophy when it comes to adoptions.”

This broaches the next obvious question: Is it OK to own a pet if you're poor? You've heard the statement, “You shouldn't own a pet if you can't afford to take care of it.” For Boudreau, the answer to this question is less black-and-white and more shades of gray. She says she's open to adopting pets out into homes that may need to sign up for a pet pantry right away or may need other support to start on the path to a happy, healthy home for a pet.

“If somebody falls in love, they've got great intentions, they've got a great setup, and they aren't going to have that little bit of extra money this month for pet food, we can help with that. That's our job,” she says.

At the end of the day, it's the relationships that veterinary professionals, animal control officers, shelter professionals and rescue groups form that will create stronger relationships between people and pets.

“I think there's a lot of potential of tightening up the community, having rescue groups work closely with shelters, having animal control officers working closely with shelters and having everyone on the same page, seeing the big picture,” Boudreau says. “I think that's a big part of it-more communication, getting together more, sharing the same goals and sharing the same data.” 

Do pet owners know where their dogs come from? We're not talking animal husbandry here, folks. Instead, we look at the ethics behind the sourcing of many of the pets people adopt-and buy-in the United States. Check out “Man's best livestock” to read more.

Editor's note: Do you believe financial stability is a prerequisite to pet ownership? Is there room for pet ownership for people living in poverty? Are pets tied to social status or class? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or by emailing us at dvmnews@ubm.com.