Shelter Snapshot: Meeting the need for standards-and saving more lives

December 14, 2018

Read all about the carefully crafted Association of Veterinary Shelter Guidelines and how the first shelter that worked to achieve all the goals greatly increased the number of adoptions.

Photo: isavira / Adobe StockThe mission of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) is to advance and support the practice of shelter medicine to improve community animal health and well-being. This mission sustained the ASV members as they worked toward creating the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, the first set of guidelines created and published in 2010 for the purpose of helping animal welfare organizations meet the physical, mental and behavioral needs of the animals in their care.

To date, there is no single agency or organization that regulates the welfare and care of animals in a shelter environment. Animal care in shelters is not standardized, so it differs from shelter to shelter. These inconsistencies can lead to shelters, often unintentionally, causing serious welfare deficiencies for the animals in their care because of overcrowding or inappropriate housing, inadequate mental stimulation or physical exercise, or a lack of understanding of basic biosecurity. These problems may manifest with difficulty in containing the spread of disease or animals with severe behavioral issues related to the stress of being in a shelter.

The guidelines were inspired by the lack of standardization and the suffering the authors had seen in shelters. Despite good intentions and in many cases best efforts by shelter staff, animals were continuing to fall ill, incur major behavioral problems, and die of diseases in shelters. The ASV Guidelines Task Force was convened to author the guidelines. This team was determined to help shelters elevate their standards of care by centering the evidence-based guidelines around a framework of the Five Freedoms:

• freedom from hunger and thirst

• freedom from discomfort

• freedom from pain and suffering

• freedom from fear and stress

• freedom to express natural behavior.

The guidelines were based on an extensive literature review in many different subject areas. Where shelter-related literature was absent, professional experience and consensus was used to formulate the actual guidelines.

The result of years of work were guidelines aimed at providing a roadmap and actionable steps for providing high-quality care for shelter animals, regardless of the type of organization or facility. While the guidelines were intended for animal welfare organizations, many aspects of the guidelines are applicable to other situations in which animals are cared for in a group setting, including veterinary clinics, boarding facilities and animal daycare centers.

The guidance of the guidelines

The guidelines are split into 12 sections. The sections include:

• Management and record keeping

• Facility design and environment

• Population management

• Sanitation

• Medical health and physical well-being

• Behavioral health and mental well-being

• Group housing

• Animal handling

• Euthanasia

• Spaying and neutering

• Animal transport

• Public health

The primary takeaway of the section on medical health is a focus on treating individual animals with illnesses while ensuring the rest of the population in care is protected and stays healthy. This requires proper isolation, prompt treatment and consistent monitoring and evaluation of each animal's health status while in care. This means animals housed for any period of time must be monitored daily, and changes in behavior, food and water consumption, appearance or overall health must be noted and appropriately managed. There must also be the ability to isolate animals that may have illnesses with the potential to spread to other animals or people, with traffic into those areas kept to a minimum to prevent spread of disease.

An equally important section focuses on behavioral health. The guidelines include the minimum recommendations of providing regular social contact, mental stimulation and physical activity to animals housed for any period of time. Attention to the behavioral health of animals is critical to ensure an animal is adapting successfully to the shelter environment, as behavioral problems can compromise the health and welfare of shelter animals, as well as potential for adoption. Enrichment, which is not optional, should be given the same significance as nutrition or veterinary care.

Completing the guidelines: One shelter's triumph

The ASV guidelines are a significant step in the improvement of humane animal care. And while many organizations have implemented various teachings of the guidelines into their sheltering practices, in 2017, one shelter became the first to implement and document all of the guidelines. Humane Society Silicon Valley (HSSV), a California-based animal shelter, worked for more than two years to change and refine policies and procedures to meet the guidelines. The shelter went through the process of completing the guidelines in order to show that it is possible, and to then become a resource for other shelters wanting to elevate their standard of care.

The process of completing the guidelines was, at times, difficult and time-intensive. Many guidelines around animal care required additional resources, including staff and volunteer time. However, the trade-off was worth it. The increased focus on enrichment made for healthier and less stressed animals, and healthier animals are easier to adopt.

Animals were now able to display a greater variation of natural behaviors. Cats were given opportunities to hide, climb and scratch. Portals were cut in stainless steel housing units, doubling the living space, and allowing them to move back and forth and keep activities like elimination and feeding separated. Dogs were given more of a variety in their toys; raised, multi-level Kuranda-style beds; and curtains for those who are shy. An increased amount of attention was paid to giving larger dogs enough physical exercise through a new program called Doggy Day Out, in which volunteers could take large, active dogs out of the shelter for a day and hike with them. The result has been a nearly 50% increase in adoptions and over 1,600 more lives saved in the past few years compared with before the guidelines were implemented.

The future of animal care

As shelter medicine continues to evolve, so will the guidelines. The guidelines are a living document, intended to change as new information is presented through studies and experience that shapes the way we understand and provide animal care. Animal welfare and the care of animals is continuing to improve, and more shelters and other animal organizations are adapting to ASV guidelines for standard of care. For the authors of the guidelines, this was their hope all along-a world in which better practices lead to more lifesaving.

"Shelter Snapshot" is a collaborative column between the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) and dvm360.com to help inform veterinarians and team members involved in veterinary shelter medicine and in related aspects of veterinary general practice. To learn more about the ASV and to find more information on these and other animal sheltering terms, visit sheltervet.org.

Dr. Cristie Kamiya is the Chief of Shelter Medicine at the Humane Society Silicon Valley, Milpitas, California.