The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

The official blog of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

Infrastructure building, Lifesaving programs, Management team support

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The perils of attachment

Every year in Northern California, over 320,000 animals enter shelters, most as "strays" or lost pets and owner surrenders, some as confiscations from arrests, hospitalizations, bite quarantines, and other sundry reasons. Some will be reclaimed by their owners, some will be euthanized, and some will go up for adoption. Reclaims and euthanasia will be topics for future blog posts, but today's post focuses on those animals in adoptions and the staff and volunteers who care for them.

Attachment happens without our knowledge. Each day when we, as staff or volunteers of an animal shelter, go in to work, we see the familiar faces of the animals who have been been there for more than a day or two. As time passes, we remember their names and habits, and we look forward to seeing them. We start to make special visits to our favorites, spend extra time with them. We start taking our favorite dogs to training classes, on offsite hikes, home for "sleepovers." This is good, right? Well, it all depends on your attitude. When attachment happens, we start to think of these as "our" animals, and to lose sight of our purpose in their lives.

A rescue friend once said, "We must remember that we are the stopover, not the destination." When we start thinking of ourselves as the destination, strange things happen. Suddenly no adopter is good enough. We start, unconsciously, discouraging people from adopting. We criticize them: they work long hours, don't have time, don't have a fenced yard. We play up the animal's flaws: she really shouldn't be in a home with children, she is too active for you, at her age she will require a lot of vet care. When the animal has a solid adoption possibility, we actually start to feel sad, and in doing so we put our own feelings of attachment and loss above those of the animal. When the animal is transferred to a rescue group or to another shelter where she has a better chance of being adopted, we worry, we call them, check the web site, want to visit to make sure the animal is all right.

So what's the harm? We just want what is best for the animals, right? No matter how you justify it, the harm is great. It's no secret that dogs and cats develop behavioral and medical problems as a result of confinement in a shelter. A great deal of research has been done on the subject with resulting recommendations for reduction in the length of stay (LOS). The shorter time an animal spends in a shelter, the better their chances of emerging mentally and physically healthy. Sadly, there are many cases of long-timer dogs finally being adopted and then returned due to psychotic behavior such as attacking their new owner or another family member. Also, what about all the other dogs and cats in need of help? In a high-intake shelter, keeping one animal in a kennel for months means that many others are put down, because even the best shelters have to consider "space" as a factor. In a low-intake shelter, the same situation means that many other animals are turned away, resulting in their being abandoned, taken to the high-intake shelter, or being given away unaltered.

Now what's the cure? On its face, there is nothing wrong with taking great care of the animals, including all the extra attention. What we need to change is our attitude. Our role is to get these animals adopted into forever homes as quickly as possible. There is nothing wrong with an adoption process and criteria, but we want to remove unnecessary barriers to adoption. There is nothing wrong with vetting rescue groups to make sure they are legitimate and have a history of quickly placing animals in quality homes, but we don't want to avoid transfers because we believe they are all hoarders or because we believe that no other shelter can do as good a job as we can.

Animals' lives depend on our ability to let go. After all, next year there will be another 320,000 in need.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Capacity for humane care.

What is your shelter's capacity for humane care? Do you even know what that means?

Most shelters operate on a damage control basis. Animals are received daily without restrictions until overcrowded conditions result. At that time, the shelter either starts euthanizing or puts out a call to the public that they are in DESPERATE need of rescue, fosters and adopters. They may have an adoption special, even give animals away, while still allowing the public to drop off an unchecked number of new ones. Dogs are doubled up in kennels, cats in cages. Soon, there are disease outbreaks: URI, kennel cough, ringworm, and the dreaded panleukopenia and parvo virus. It would be bad enough if this happened once, but shelters go through this same cycle year after year without making significant changes. They may disinfect more, or stop letting cats out of their cages for fear of disease transmission, not understanding that these practices can actually increase stress and thereby incidence of disease. They may euthanize more, putting down healthy animals to make "room" for others. They may install additional cat cages or dog kennels, or start clamoring for a new, larger shelter. When questioned about intake, many will reply, "But we're open-door," or "By law we can't turn people away," or any other number of reasons that no one researches.

Imagine if human hospitals were run this way. An unchecked number of patients are admitted. Because the doctor is too busy, they may not be examined for days or weeks. When all the beds are full, new patients are made to share the bed with strangers. Patients with tuberculosis are housed in the same wing with pregnant women about to give birth. Still more patients are admitted. Healthy people start to become sick, sick people die. Now the hospital puts out a call for help to the public, saying they need volunteers and donations. More beds are stuffed into each room. Because the staff are overtaxed, treatments get missed, bedding doesn't get changed, rooms don't get cleaned, people are forgotten. When things reach a crisis point and the community reacts, hospital leaders blame it on the public, saying they are "irresponsible" for needing their help.

Sound crazy? It's how most animal shelters operate today.

Calculating your capacity for humane care is one of the most important things you can do for your animal shelter. Thanks to this tool created by Dr. Kate Hurley, Director of UC Davis' Shelter Medicine Program, you can begin to understand the concept of outcome-driven intake and apply it to your shelter. If you like webinars, here is a link to several produced by ASPCA Pro. Admitting more animals than you can humanely care for is not heroic, it's irresponsible. Shelters implementing capacity for humane care limits are experiencing healthier animals, more adoptions, less euthanasia, less expense, a more productive staff, and many other benefits. Would you like to make these positive changes to your agency? We can help.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What is your shelter doing better this year?

Okay shelter folk, this post is all about you. Please share what you are doing better this year. Are you trying a new program, like SNR? Are you organizing your foster program? Ramping up care for special needs animals? Gettting your shelter more exposure in the media? Little changes can make a big difference. Let's hear about them!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Lost and found ... or not.

In Northern California alone, over 320,000 animals enter shelters every year. Roughly 75%, or 240,000, are "strays." Of those lost pets, roughly 80%, or 192,000, will never see their owners again.*

We don't know of any shelter that wants more animals, yet 192,000 is a lot to impound, vaccinate, feed, clean up after, treat medically, spay/neuter, hold for days, weeks, months, then ultimately adopt out or euthanize. Why, then, are shelters not making more effort to find owners? Unfortunately, as discussed in a previous post, "That's the way we've always done it" plays a big part. Animal is brought in to the shelter, shelter collects information on the finder and the animal. Animal is processed (scanned, vaccinated, checked for major injury or illness), animal is kenneled. If the animal has no ID, that's pretty much all that will happen. The animal will sit in a cage in a shelter that may be 25-50 miles from the location it was found. The photo may or may not be posted online. The shelter may be open very limited hours and may not have a good phone system. If an owner of a missing pet does get through to a live person, they may not give out information over the phone, requiring them to come to the shelter and search in person. If they do make the trip -- and they're at the right shelter, as some Counties have as many as nine agencies with a dizzying array of jurisdictional responsibilities -- they may not see their animal because strays are often locked away in back rooms, and there is no way of knowing this unless the owner checks in with staff, which they often don't if no one is around to help or if there is a big line.

Is it any wonder that so few animals are found and reclaimed?

Shelters that are taking a proactive approach to lost pet prevention and recovery (LPPR) are experiencing double and triple the rates of reclaim as other shelters. Because of this success, they do not become overcrowded and can spend their resources taking better care of the animals that truly need to find new homes. Would you like to start an LPPR program? We can help.

* These figures are based on 2013 data collected from 115 agencies in Northern California. Because the quality and method of reporting varies widely from agency to agency, these numbers are not exact, but at least they give us a ball park idea of animal shelter intake and outcome.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

That's the way we've always done it.

That's the way we've always done it. If you want to be successful, you will wipe that phrase from your vocabulary and never let it be uttered in your presence.

Animal shelters have some of the most bizarre, outdated, and just plain puzzling policies and procedures. How they come about are something of a mystery. Someone at some point must have thought it was a good idea or misinterpreted the law or a best practice. Thanks to animal shelters' famously high turnover, in a few years no one remembers the origin of the policy, but they will quote it vigorously, and when pressed, the answer is always the same, "That's the way we've always done it."

One shelter's policy is that if a kitten comes in by itself, it can go straight out to foster, but if it comes with a litter, it must be held the 72 hours. Despite being shown the law -- and how this isn't mentioned -- they vehemently defended their practice, even though the extra four days in the shelter is stressful and exposes the kittens to diseases and parasites. "That's the way we've always done it."

Another shelter's policy is to put cats in the "feral room" -- and this means they don't get scanned for a microchip or vaccinated -- if they are brought in a trap. Even if these cats are clearly friendly, purring and head butting, into the feral room they go. This shelter doesn't understand why they keep having panleuk outbreaks. "That's the way we've always done it."

Another shelter was euthanizing healthy feral cats -- or any cat brought in a trap, for that matter -- immediately upon intake. When questioned, staff didn't understand the problem. Feral cats are never reclaimed and they are euthanized anyway, so what's the difference? Even the department head defended the practice, repeating another euphemism that needs to go away, "We're full." This illegal and inhumane practice was stopped before they had a chance to say, "That's the way we've always done it."

If you want your agency to be successful, you must question everything you do. What are we doing, and why? Is it mandated? If so, how will we interpret that mandate? Is it a best practice? Why or why not? If not, what is a better practice? Only then can you begin to create the world that you want to live and work in.