Animal shelters and animal welfare: Raising the bar
Stray or unowned, free-roaming animals, and in particular, cats, continue to be a societal challenge in North America. In addition to significant health and welfare problems of the animals themselves, there are public health and safety concerns with free-roaming animals, and key environmental concerns, including wild and domestic animal predation by feral dogs and cats, and potential attraction of predators, such as coyotes, into suburban and urban areas by the ready supply of feral cats as food (1). There are no accurate total numbers for feral, stray, or abandoned dogs and cats in Canada, only a proportion of which enter animal shelters or pounds each year, but informal estimates for unowned, stray cats in the city of Toronto alone have been suggested to be somewhere between 100 000 to 220 000 animals (2).
A trend seen in North America is that the numbers of dogs entering shelters are decreasing while numbers of unwanted cats are increasing (3,4). In Canada, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies estimates that approximately 300 000 unowned cats and dogs enter shelters and pounds annually (5). In the United States, an estimated 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year (6). This does not include animals relinquished to shelters by their owners for reasons such as infirmity, unacceptable behaviors, or old age (7). In both countries, approximately 40% to 50% of animals entering shelters or pounds will be euthanized, the vast majority of which are cats. In addition to cats and dogs, many shelters and pounds accept other species, including small mammals and exotic animals; however, these generally represent a small proportion of the total population housed. ... For members of the public wishing to support the work of these organizations and for veterinarians desirous of donating materials or professional expertise to improve the welfare of stray animals, there is a confusing array of organizations professing to offer shelter services. For example, municipal pounds, shelters, no-kill shelters, sanctuaries, rescue operations, and foster care services may all work in some capacity with unowned cats and dogs. Each type of organization may have a different mandate, set of philosophical values, source of funding, and mode of operation, some of which may overlap, making it difficult to know how best to donate time, equipment and supplies, or money for optimal impact. The level of third party inspection and oversight between different types of facilities is also widely variable, leading to different standards of maintenance and care between facilities. Consistent independent inspection and oversight is an important consideration for shelter animal welfare. In the United States, the ASPCA has reported an increase in the number of animal hoarders posing as animal rescue operations (8).
Most shelter organizations have common goals of trying to reunite owners with lost pets, rehoming unowned animals, and providing shelter and care for a vulnerable population. Inconsistent philosophies for animal management between facilities may create competition for funding dollars, as well as imposing an undue burden on the community. For example, shelters with strict "no-kill" or limited admission policies often refuse animals that are sick, aged, of unsound temperament, or with inappropriate behaviors because they are poor adoption candidates. Although well-intentioned, such a rigid philosophical policy may not contribute to optimizing animal welfare in the long run if there is insufficient space for these animals in other nearby shelters. This may instead contribute to animal abandonment, abuse, neglect, or overcrowding at other facilities that have less restrictive admission policies.
Despite the best intentions and selfless efforts of numerous dedicated individuals working for animal shelters, there are many animal welfare issues associated with the care and management of this population that must be addressed by the veterinary profession and society. One of the most significant issues is adequacy of facility staffing. This is typically driven by an insufficient level of funding support and an ethical conundrum that may prioritize providing any kind of life for a stray animal (that may be housed in a facility for weeks to months) over quality of life. The rule of thumb for staffing projections for municipally run animal shelters or pounds is to allot an average of 15 minutes per animal per day - 6 minutes for feeding and 9 minutes for cleaning (9). While this may be the minimum required for basic maintenance of healthy animals, this does not take into account time required for medical treatments or therapy, provision of enrichment and animal socialization, temperament evaluation, or provision of exercise outside the cage or kennel. These are all factors that may be very important in the success of rehoming of a stray animal and enhancing that animal's quality of life. If there are insufficient personnel working in a facility, this additional time expenditure on animals may be perceived as a luxury and not offered routinely or consistently.
Further, many of the individuals working at shelters may be volunteers with little background or training in population management, including identification and control of infectious diseases. This includes well-intentioned veterinarians who may be unaware of the special needs of this population. Shelter medicine is recognized as a newly emerging specialty within veterinary medicine and is supported by a number of specific professional associations, such as the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (10). As for any sphere of veterinary practice, those veterinarians wishing to volunteer or work in shelters have a responsibility to learn about the specific needs of this population of animals, to ensure that the best and most appropriate medical care is offered. There are several excellent textbooks and guidelines on medical care in animal shelters, as well as online resources (11) that may be used as references. Appropriate education and training of all shelter staff and volunteers is critical to ensure animal well-being.
Insufficient levels of funding support induce many other potential animal welfare-related problems. Funding shortfalls are common for many shelters; however, small shelters relying strictly on private donations for operation may experience severe variations in cash flow at different times of the year. This may compromise animals in their care if food and basic supplies cannot be purchased or if minimum levels of facility maintenance, staffing, and animal husbandry can't be maintained. Inadequacy of care is exacerbated by a lack of regular and standardized inspection of shelter facilities. Shelter inspection is variable between municipalities and provinces, and many private facilities are never inspected.
Similarly, some shelters may rely on donations of expired pharmaceutical substances, biologics, or pet food from local veterinary clinics for shelter animal use. While many of these materials do not become inactive immediately at expiration, there may be other problems associated with their continued use, including reduced drug potency or levels of vitamins and nutrients over time, formation of toxic by-products, lack of sterility, and potential contamination if substances have been used previously, and a true knowledge of when these drugs, biologics, and nutrients actually do become inactive. Donating materials that have exceeded their shelf-life and that may no longer legally be used or sold within a clinic represents a dubious contribution at best. Because these animals are unowned and vulnerable does not mean that a different standard of practice is acceptable for their care and treatment or that their basic needs are different than for other dogs and cats. If anything, shelter animals are more in need of nutritious, high quality foods to enhance immune system function, as well as efficacious drugs and biologics to treat and manage infectious diseases and pain. Veterinarians have a role in safeguarding the practice of veterinary medicine in these facilities to ensure optimal patient care.
Finally, funding insufficiencies at animal shelters necessitate triaging medical management of animals maintained in these facilities. Most shelters will ensure that all new intake animals are surgically sterilized before they are released to new owners, but there may be insufficient funding to treat infections or other potentially curable conditions that may significantly enhance quality of life or adoptability. These may be issues in which informed veterinary support can assist with resource allocation.
Overcrowding at animal shelters reduces animal welfare. Overcrowding induces adverse stress when unfamiliar animals of the same species are mixed, increasing susceptibility to infection, as well as concentrating infectious particles and fomites, and increasing opportunities for transmission to naive or debilitated animals (12). This is particularly true for feline respiratory disease complex, which is rampant in many animal shelters, but has also been seen with other more innocuous conditions, such as dermatophytosis, with disastrous consequences. Overcrowding may lead to single housing of animals to minimize animal contact and disease transmission, mixing of predator and prey species in the same room, such as cats, rats, and rabbits, and maintenance of animals in inappropriate areas that cannot be adequately sanitized, such as on carpet, in hallways, or in storage areas. All of these strategies should not be viewed as more than temporary measures of management, as they may significantly reduce animal well-being in the long-term, increase the likelihood of stereotypic behavior development (13), and increase the potential for disease transmission.
Animals kept in confinement in shelters should be provided with opportunities for exercise with other animals and human handling to increase their physical and psychological well-being. While this requires additional volunteers or staff to manage it has been shown to provide a strategic benefit to animals beyond their immediate mental health. In particular, regular exercise and handling of shelter dogs has been positively correlated with increased adoption rates (14). Despite the risk of disease transmission, the welfare of cats that will be housed long-term in a shelter may also be improved by communal housing with the addition of enrichments to their environments (15). Again, the use of environmental enrichment for shelter animals may have strategic effects beyond providing for psychological well-being of animals. Shelters employing simple toys in cat cages as environmental enrichment report increased adoption rates, even if cats are not playing with the toys at the time of viewing by potential adopters (16).
While the primary goal of most shelters is to rehome unwanted animals, this should be approached with care and diligence to ensure that adopted animals will be well cared for and will not wind up in another shelter shortly after acquisition. Ensuring that potential adopters are screened for suitability is essential. Providing counselling regarding the needs of a companion animal adopted from a shelter is also critical (17). Interestingly, a recent study suggests that charging a fee for adoption of a cat from a shelter does not impact the attachment levels of owners to their new pet (18). The authors of this study contend that this may occur because the new owners received concurrent information and counselling on appropriate pet care. This same study found that waiving an adoption fee also increased adoption rates of adult cats from shelters.
Inevitably, every homeless animal cannot be adopted nor are all suitable for adoption. Shelters must euthanize animals or deal with long-term maintenance of unwanted dogs and cats in very confined conditions, contributing to poor quality of life for these animals and limiting intake of new animals. When euthanasia is conducted, standardized protocols must be in place to ensure a humane and dignified death for these animals. Performing euthanasia can be an unpleasant task for veterinarians and animal care attendants at any time, but the emotional toll on shelter personnel of dealing with cases of animal abuse and killing dogs and cats day after day should not be underestimated. Shelters with a designated euthanasia room and facilities that permit separation of live animals from those undergoing euthanasia report lower staff replacement rates (19). In addition to adding to operational inefficiency, high personnel turnover rates adversely impact shelter animal well-being, as there is a learning curve for new employees who must master facility procedures and schedules, and animals must become habituated to new caregivers.
Few shelters are able to employ veterinarians to oversee and conduct all euthanasia procedures on a full-time basis. It is imperative that appropriate staff training occur and that technical competency be verified prior to assigning this procedure to shelter personnel. Some provinces have introduced mandatory certification for personnel conducting euthanasia in shelters to ensure knowledge and confidence in the techniques, and ultimately, a peaceful death for shelter animals that must be euthanized (20). While the AVMA recommends intravenous barbiturate injection as the preferred method of euthanizing cats and dogs (21), a recent survey of Canadian shelters indicated that many facilities continue to use T-61 with pre-sedation in cats and dogs (22). This is not an ideal method for euthanizing companion animals but current restrictions on barbiturate licensing requirements preclude its wider distribution and use in shelter facilities without appropriate veterinary oversight. Facilities should consider that trained and registered animal health technologists may perform euthanasia procedures with barbiturates when working under veterinary supervision.
Ultimately, the long-term goal for Canadian society should be to reduce the numbers of unwanted animals in shelters across the country by reducing relinquishment and abandonment of dogs and cats, as well as addressing irresponsible breeding. Long-term public awareness campaigns about responsible pet ownership including spaying/neutering of non-breeding pets, encouraging acquisition of pets from pounds and shelters instead of breeders and pet stores, and municipal enforcement of animal licensing and owner registration continue to be important tools to reduce unwanted animals. These programs should be supported by the veterinary community. Other methods to reduce populations and euthanasia of unowned animals include trap-neuter-release community programs for stray cats (reviewed in 23) and subsidized spay-neuter clinics. The ongoing development of safe permanent chemical neutering vaccines for companion animals is also expected to assist with shelter animal population control.
There is no simple solution to the complex problem of animal overpopulation and shelters remain an interim solution for the foreseeable future. Stray animals, especially cats, are often reviled and may enter shelters with a visible history of neglect and abuse. They are some of the most vulnerable animals that exist in our communities but despite their significant numbers, they remain largely unseen and unwanted by society. Veterinarians should strive to ensure that this population of disadvantaged animals receives compassionate, humane, and high quality medical care in life and dignity in death. An awareness of the complex issues accompanying animal shelter management and the critical need for appropriate education and training of all personnel in contact with animals is essential to ensure good welfare of shelter animals.
Pet "overpopulation" encompasses two primary factors: (1) allowing cats and dogs to reproduce with little chance to find homes for the offspring and (2) pets being relinquished by owners who can no longer keep their animals, or who no longer want them.
Every year, millions of cats and dogs are euthanized in our nation's animal shelters because there are more pets than there are responsible homes for them. Until this issue is resolved, American Humane Association believes that all cats and dogs adopted from public or private animal care and control facilities should be spayed or neutered (i.e., sterilized). Such sterilization includes prepubertal spaying and neutering of kittens and puppies. American Humane Association supports the passage of laws and regulations mandating that all cats and dogs adopted from public or private animal care and control facilities be sterilized. It is less certain that community-wide mandatory spay/neuter laws are effective in addressing pet overpopulation. More information needs to be gathered on the benefit of prior legislative initiatives to determine long-term benefits.
American Humane Association encourages the veterinary profession to assist, whenever and however possible, in reducing the number of unwanted pets. This involvement includes supporting the neutering of cats and dogs adopted from public or private animal care and control facilities - thereby controlling the ongoing contribution of offspring to pet overpopulation. Veterinarians should continue to use their best judgment when recommending appropriate sterilization ages for individual cats and dogs owned by clients, especially those clients who are wellknown and likely to permit an unwanted pregnancy to occur prior to surgery. Short-term and long-term health risks for each animal should always be assessed. American Humane Association encourages research into the development and use of nonsurgical methods of sterilization. ... American Humane Association also supports research to assess the causes for pet relinquishment. Prior research studies suggest that 7 to 20 percent of pets entering a home are no longer in that home six months after acquisition. These animals often end up at shelters, contributing to the pet "overpopulation" issue. Thus, American Humane Association wishes to understand individual, cultural and community issues that lead to pet relinquishment and to develop practical and effective intervention strategies.
What you can do to combat pet overpopulation:
Always spay and neuter your pets.
Always adopt your pets from a legitimate shelter or nonprofit rescue group.
Consider all the responsibilities and consequences of pet ownership before deciding to get a pet and always make a lifetime commitment to your pet.
Educate your children, friends, family members and co-workers about pet overpopulation, adoption and the importance of spaying and neutering.
You can help stop generations of suffering. Have your female pet spayed and your male pet neutered. Don't allow them to breed and add to the pet overpopulation problem.
Pet Over Population Facts:
Is animal overpopulation really a problem?
- Almost 3 million cats and dogs are estimated to be killed in U.S. shelters each year.
- A fertile dog can produce an average of two litters in one year.
- The average number of puppies in a canine litter is six to ten.
- Up to 508 puppies can be born from one unspayed female dog and her offspring in seven years.
- The US ratio of dogs to humans is about one to four.
- A fertile cat can produce an average of three litters in one year.
- The average number of kittens in a feline litter is four to six.
- Up to 4,948 kittens can be born from one unspayed female cat and her offspring in seven years.
- The capture, impoundment and eventual destruction of unwanted animals costs taxpayers and private humanitarian agencies over a billion dollars each year. - The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
- 56% of dogs and 71% of cats that enter shelters are euthanized. - National Council of Pet Population Study, Shelter Statistics Survey - 1996
- Approximately 30% of animals in U.S. shelters are purebred - Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, Vol. 1, No. 3, p. 213
- Females become pregnant during their estrus or "heat" periods. These cycles usually occur twice a year in dogs, and at least two or three times a year in cats. Many cats "come into heat" as often as once every two-to-three weeks, especially in warm climates. The warm weather coincides with female cats' heat cycles, causing kitten "season" starting in spring, peaking in late spring or early summer, and ending in fall.
- Intact (unneutered) male dogs represent 80% of the dogs presented to veterinary behaviorists for cases of dominance aggression.
- Intact males are involved in 75% of reported dog bite incidents.
- Spay/neuter is the only permanent, 100-percent effective method of birth control for dogs and cats.
- Sterilizing a cat/dog reduces their urge to roam and decreases the risk of contracting diseases or getting hurt as they roam. Surveys indicate that as many as 85% of dogs hit by cars are unaltered. Intact male cats living outside have been shown to live on average less than two years.