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Exploring the ASV's guidelines for standards of care in animal shelters (Proceedings)


The development of the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters was a three-year project of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. It culminated in the publication of the "Standards" document in December 2010.

The development of the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters was a three-year project of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. It culminated in the publication of the "Standards" document in December 2010. The document is currently available at the ASV website www.sheltervet.org.

Overriding principles

Two overriding principles form the basis of the document: the five freedoms and capacity for care. The concept of Five Freedoms originated with the Report of the UK Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals kept under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems, the Brambell Report, December 1965. The concept was subsequently refined by Farm Animal Welfare Council so that it actually took the form of five freedoms. It has since been further updated and is now the most visited page on the Council's Website. These principles are relevant and appropriate measures of welfare for any animal species and we tried to be mindful of this throughout the process.

Every sheltering organization has a maximum capacity for care, and the population in their care must not exceed that level. Capacity for care is determined by many factors including, but not limited to: the number of appropriate housing units; staffing; staff training; financial resources, average length of stay; and the total number of reclaims, adoptions, transfers, release, or other outcomes.

How to Use the Standards Document

Shelter Practices are categorized as: ideal, should, must, or unacceptable.

Overview of the Content of the Standards Document

The Standards document has 12 sections; each dealing with a different aspect of animal sheltering. The primary goal of this document is as a tool for improvement and to assist those who are working on behalf of animals to obtain the support they need from their communities for proper care.

     1. Operational Issues (Policies, Protocols, Record Keeping)

     2. Facility Design and Environment (Primary enclosures, HVAC, Light, Sound)

     3. Population Management (Capacity for Care, Monitoring Statistics)

     4. Sanitation (Cleaning, Disinfection, Fomite Control)

     5. Medical Health and Physical Well-Being (Preventive health care, emergency care, pain, nutrition, response to disease/illness, population well-being)

     6. Behavioral Health and Mental Well-Being (Intake, evaluation, in-shelter care, stress reduction, enrichment, behavior modification)

     7. Group Housing

     8. Animal Handling

     9. Euthanasia (Technique, environment and equipment, record keeping, staff training)

     10. Spay-Neuter

     11. Animal Transport (Responsibilities at origin, during transport, at destination)

     12. Public Health (Zoonoses, Animal-related injuries, emerging diseases)

Shelter operations

Implementation of care standards requires adequate resources, planning, training, and ongoing monitoring. This is the foundation upon which many other elements described in this document must rest. To build this foundation, organizations must have a clearly defined mission; policies and protocols reflecting current knowledge and standards; and adequate staff training and management oversight.

Because animal health is interwoven into virtually every facet of sheltering or rescue programs, veterinarians should be integrally involved with development and implementation of an organizational plan, and must have oversight of medical and surgical care of animals.

Policies and procedures must be in place for animal intake, animal care, treatment of injuries and illnesses, adoption, and euthanasia and the protocols must be developed and documented in sufficient detail to maintain standards of care.

There must be a clearly defined management structure that is communicated to all staff and volunteers. The management structure must define lines of authority, responsibility, and supervision and authority and responsibility must be given only to those who have the appropriate knowledge and training.

A unique identifier must be established for each animal and should be physically affixed to the animal. Records must be kept on each animal and should include: the identifier, source, dates of entry and departure, outcome, species, age, gender, physical description, and any medical and behavioral information.

Facility design and environment

Shelters must provide an environment that is conducive to maintaining animal health. Facilities must be appropriate for the species, the number receiving care and the expected length of stay of each animal. The facility should provide for separation of animals by health status, species, age, gender, temperament, and predator-prey status. The size each primary enclosure must provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural adjustments. Protected indoor / outdoor access is ideal for most species and special consideration should be given to animals housed for prolonged periods of time.

Surfaces should be non-porous and durable. Floors should be sloped gently towards drains and wastewater should not run off to common areas or adjacent kennels. Each primary enclosure must allow for the animals to comfortably maintain normal body temperature. Regular patterns of lightness and darkness are essential and natural light should be available whenever possible. Facility design, staff operations and environment enrichment should all attempt to minimize noise. Most shelter animals have more sensitive hearing than humans and it is common for shelter noise levels to exceed 100db. Unattended drop boxes should not be used.

Population management

The key issue here is capacity for care. Capacity for care is much more than just how many animals can the facility hold. It is also influenced by the level of staffing and staff training. For example it is estimated that it takes 9 minutes to adequately clean the housing area for each animal and 6 minutes for feeding. If your goal is to have all animals fed and cleaned between 8 and 10 am. You need one staff member for every 8 animals.

Operating beyond capacity becomes a vicious cycle where services required to move animals through the system are delayed. Delays prolong average lengths of stay for animals leading to increased daily population. Further taxes the organization's capacity for care. Once a shelter has exceeded their capacity for care it is no longer possible to ensure the five freedoms. Therefore, shelters must have policies and protocols to maintain adequate capacity for care.


Good sanitation is an integral part of humane animal housing and necessary to maintain animal health. Protocols for proper sanitation are essential for any sheltering program. Protocols must be based on current knowledge and recommendations specifically for animal shelters, and must include specific methods and agents for achieving the goals of both cleaning and disinfection. Enough staff must be assigned to complete sanitation tasks promptly each day so that animals spend the majority of their time in sanitary conditions.

Thorough sanitation of primary enclosures between animal occupants is essential. When water or products will be sprayed in or near the area of the primary enclosure, animals should be removed from the cage or kennel, or separated from the area being cleaned by guillotine doors to prevent splatter, soaking of the animals and stress. It is an unacceptable practice to hose down kennels or cages while animals are inside them. Animals that are housed long term in the same enclosure require less frequent disinfection of their enclosure, but daily cleaning is still essential to maintain sanitary conditions. In many instances, cages and kennels can be cleaned using the "spot cleaning" method, where the animal remains in its cage while the cage is tidied, and soiled materials, urine and feces are removed

Any complete sanitation protocol must address proper hygiene of shelter staff, volunteers, visitors and all facilities and materials used in animal care. All clothing and bedding used at the shelter must be laundered before reuse. Food and water bowls should be maintained in a clean condition and disinfected prior to use by a different animal. Litter pans and dishes must not be cleaned at the same time in the same sink, and the sink should be thoroughly disinfected between uses. Footbaths are insufficient to prevent infectious disease spread and poorly maintained footbaths may contribute to the spread of disease. It is unacceptable for animals to walk through footbaths. Ideally, feces should be removed immediately from outdoor areas, but at minimum must be removed at least daily. Standing water should not be allowed to accumulate in areas around the shelter because pathogens thrive and mosquitoes breed readily in moist environments

Medical health and physical well-being

Proper medical management and health care for shelter animals is an absolute necessity and must include attention to overall well-being and must include veterinary oversight and the participation of trained staff. A successful shelter medical health program limits suffering and minimizes disease.

Comprehensive shelter medical programs that begin on intake and continue throughout each animal's shelter stay are the foundation of a shelter housing a population of increasingly healthy animals. Decline of animal health and welfare after intake, wide scale disease outbreaks, large numbers of animals dying of disease or injuries or zoonotic disease transmission are indicators of a poor health care program.

For adequate medical care and preventive health accurate medical records are essential. These should include a medical history, a health evaluation on intake, and observations from medical rounds conducted at least once every twenty-four hours by a trained individual.

Vaccines are vital lifesaving tools and must be used as part of a preventive shelter health care program. Animals must be vaccinated with core vaccines at or prior to shelter intake.

Fresh, clean water must be accessible to animals at all times. Food that is consistent with the nutritional needs and health status of the individual must be provided.

Any animal that is observed to be experiencing pain, suffering or distress, rapidly deteriorating health, life threatening or suspect zoonotic medical conditions must be assessed and treated in a timely manner or provided humane euthanasia. Pain must be recognized and treated to alleviate suffering. It is generally assumed that if a procedure is painful in human beings then it must also be painful in animals. Pain treatment should be supervised by a veterinarian and failure to provide treatment for pain is unacceptable.

A disease response plan should include measures to minimize transmission to unaffected animals or people and ensure appropriate care of the affected animal that will not place other animals at risk. All facilities should have a means of providing humane isolation (on-site or through transfer to an appropriate facility). During a disease outbreak, physical separation must be established between exposed, at risk and unexposed animals or groups of animals.

Behavioral health and mental well-being

Maintenance of good health and well-being depend on meeting the physical, mental and behavioral needs of animals, all of which are linked to the animal's environment. Lack of control over one's environment represents one of the most profound stressors for 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. A thorough behavioral history should be obtained at the time of intake. Regular daily schedules of care should be followed to reduce stress.

Assessment of an animal's behavior must begin at intake; ongoing assessment should continue throughout the animal's stay. Actions should be taken to respond promptly to behavioral needs and staff must be trained to recognize body language and other behaviors that indicate stress as well as adaptation to the environment.

Enrichment improves the environment and behavioral care of confined animals. Animals must be provided regular social contact, mental stimulation and physical activity and behavioral enrichment should be given the same significance as other components of animal care.

Group housing

The purpose of group housing is to provide animals with healthy social contact and companionship. Benefits include positive interaction with other animals such as play, companionship, physical connection and socialization. Inappropriate group housing, however, creates physical risks of infection and injury and can be very stressful.

Animal handling

Handling must always be as humane as possible and appropriate for the individual and situation. 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 order, appropriate choice of location for procedures, personal protection such as gloves or push boards, and judicious use of tranquilizers. When physical restraint is necessary to avoid human injury or injury to an animal, it should be of the least intensity and duration necessary. It is unacceptable to use physical force as punishment or to use force in anger. Research indicates that gentle human contact has the additional benefit of mitigating the adverse effects of unpleasant stimuli. Overly forceful handling is more likely to result in increased fear and aggressive behavior and injury to animals and people

Each situation should be evaluated individually and each piece of animal handling equipment should be assessed for its potential to cause harm or increase stress. Even appropriate equipment may be inhumane or unsafe if not maintained in good working condition. Humane traps, purpose-designed boxes or nets should be used for handling fractious cats or cats who appear unaccustomed to handling.


When performing euthanasia, the comfort of each individual animal must be ensured. Any euthanasia method used must quickly induce loss of consciousness followed by death without causing pain, distress, anxiety, or apprehension to the animal. The method should be reliable, irreversible and compatible with the species, age and health status of the animal.

The most humane methods for euthanasia of shelter animals are IV or IP injection of a sodium pentobarbital solution. Sodium pentobarbital should not be injected by any non-vascular other than the IP route. Regardless of the route of administration, whenever progression to death is prolonged, an additional injection of sodium pentobarbital should be given. Intra-cardiac injections are not acceptable unless it has been reliably verified that the animal is unconscious, comatose or anesthetized.

The use of carbon monoxide as a method of euthanizing dogs and cats in shelters is unacceptable. Placing multiple animals in a chamber may dilute the effective concentration of carbon monoxide that each animal receives, creating a haphazard euthanasia experience that can be prolonged, painful and ineffective. CO stimulates motor centers in the brain and loss of consciousness may be accompanied by convulsions and muscular spasms, which is unacceptable. CO is extremely hazardous to human health because it is toxic, odorless and tasteless; chronic exposure to low levels can also cause serious human health problems. The Use of carbon monoxide cannot be justified to save money, take shortcuts or distance staff emotionally and physically from the euthanasia process.

To assure a smooth, dignified and safe operation, only the people directly involved in the euthanasia process should be present during procedures and animals should not be permitted to observe or hear the euthanasia of another animal, nor permitted to view the bodies of dead animals.

Spay neuter

Animal shelters should require that cats and dogs that are adopted into homes be spayed or neutered. Surgical sterilization prior to release to adopters remains the most reliable and effective means of preventing unwanted reproduction.

Sterilization surgeries should be performed following the ASV Veterinary Medical Care Guidelines for Spay-Neuter programs (published in July 2008 JAVMA and available at www.sheltervet.org). The guidelines include, but are not limited to, the following recommendations:

     • Spay neuter surgery must be performed by veterinarians or veterinary students under the direct supervision of a veterinarian

     • Medical records must be prepared for every patient indicating the surgical procedure and anesthesia administered.

     • All controlled substances must be maintained in accordance with DEA requirements.

     • A veterinarian must make the final decision regarding acceptance of any patient for surgery based on physical examination and medical history as well as the capacity of the surgery schedule

     • Although some conditions may increase the risk of complications, veterinarians must weigh the risks and benefits of spaying and neutering patients where the alternative outcome may be euthanasia

     • Aseptic surgical technique is required

     • Balanced anesthetic protocols are required

     • Patients must be monitored by trained personnel

     • Plans must be in place to handle any emergency that might occur

     • The use of a permanent tattoos is strongly recommended to mark cats and dogs at the time of surgery. The exception to this is in free roaming/feral cats where the removal of the tip of one ear is the accepted global standard.


Many shelters may be involved in animal transport. For many animals transport represents a life saving measure. But transport also poses risks and animal transport programs must be cognizant of and take precautions to minimize such risks.

During transport, animals must have adequate space, comfortable environmental conditions, good air quality and not be subject to acceleration and deceleration stresses, excessive lateral movement (cornering), noise or vibration. Pre-planning for potential disasters is strongly encouraged to minimize deviation from accepted transport practices in emergency situations. Animals destined for transport should be vaccinated on intake at the organization of origin and ideally should be treated for internal and external parasites. Animals' health and behavior, as known at the source shelter, must be accurately described and communicated. In order to minimize the risk of infectious disease and optimize welfare, animals should be in good health at the time of transport.

During transport primary enclosures must be large enough for animals to stand and sit erect, to turn around normally while standing, and to lie in a natural position. Absorbent bedding should be provided. Unfamiliar animals must not be transported together in the same primary enclosure. If more than one animal is in the primary enclosure, there must be enough space for each occupant to lie down comfortably at the same time without needing to lie on top of each other. In all situations the enclosure must be sturdy and permit adequate ventilation.

Unless orphaned, if kittens or puppies less than 8 weeks of age are transported, they should be transported together with the mother in a space large enough for her to lie down on her side with legs extended for comfort and to facilitate nursing.

Crates and cages must not be stacked upon each other in a manner that increases animal stress and discomfort, compromises ventilation, allows waste material to fall from the cage above into the cage below, interferes with care and observation, or hinders emergency removal. Placing unconfined animals in the back of an open pickup truck for transport is unacceptable.

Public health

It is essential that animal shelters take necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of shelter animals, employees, volunteers, visitors, adopters, and the environment, animals and people in the community. An organization's mission should never be achieved at the expense of safety or human health.

Sound levels in some animal shelters regularly exceed 100 decibels, creating a welfare issue for both the animals and the employees. Noise abatement materials should be utilized in animal holding areas, and hearing protection must be provided for employees working in loud environments.

Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, smocks, goggles, masks, etc. must be provided by the employer in order to protect employees from exposure to chemical and biological agents. Hand washing should be strongly encouraged after handling animals and after removing PPE and ideally hand washing facilities should be easily accessible to all visitors, staff and volunteers. Hand washing is the best way to protect people and animals in the shelter from possible disease transmission

Shelters should provide periodic staff and volunteer training and information on the recognition of potentially zoonotic conditions and the means of protecting others from exposure. Ideally, a written zoonotic infection control plan should be available to all staff and volunteers. Obviously, the public should not have unsupervised access to areas where animals are isolated for zoonotic conditions and shelters should institute good preventive medicine protocols such as prophylactic deworming and external parasite control to decrease the potential for exposure to zoonotic pathogens.

Routine use of antibiotics to prevent infection in healthy animals is unacceptable and must never be used as a substitute for good animal health management.


Shelter Standards document is available at www.sheltervet.org.

The hope is that shelters and communities will look to this document to help ensure that all animals in shelters are properly and humanely cared for. The guidelines are intended as a positive tool for shelters and communities to review their animal care, to identify areas that need improvement, to allocate resources and implement solutions so welfare is optimized, euthanasia is minimized and suffering is prevented.

The ASV acknowledges:

     1. The Kenneth A. Scott Charitable Trust, a KeyBank Trust

     2. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for funding that supported this project.

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