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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Creating A Safety Net for Pets

An animal shelter is more than just the sum of its internal programs. It’s also a public institution that has an interlocking relationship with its surrounding community. In recent years city leaders have increasingly realized how important it is to have a good animal shelter system that provides a safety net for pets. People today think of pets as family members, and it’s not unusual for families with pets to consider the shelter system in deciding whether to relocate to a particular city or go elsewhere. In much the same way that people with young children avoid cities with bad school systems, people with pets may hesitate to move to a city where their pet could be in danger if it got lost or injured and was impounded at the local shelter. And even if a family is sure that they can keep their own pets safe, they may not want to live in a city where the local shelter is killing adoptable pets.

In a 2014 survey by Boston University, the mayors of 70 U.S. cities were asked to identify the cities they looked to as models of good governance, considering all factors. Of the top ten cities identified in the survey, eight have shelter systems that are at or close to a 90% live release rate, one city is probably there but we do not have statistics for it, and the remaining city has an active No Kill reform effort underway. The mayors identified a “No Kill animal shelter” as one of several policy ideas that they wanted to implement in their own cities. Fortunately, tremendous progress in professionalizing animal sheltering has coincided with the demand for better shelter systems. This blog discusses some of the recent advances that make it possible today for every city to have a great animal shelter.


In the old days, municipal animal shelters had one primary job, and that was animal control. Many public shelters, perhaps most of them, also made efforts to treat the animals in their care humanely, but city and county officials evaluated the success of their animal departments primarily on their ability to protect people from nuisance and dangerous animals. Shelters for most of the 20th century were not a major concern in civic governance, and were too often the place where employees who had failed in other jobs could be put to get them out of the way.

Spaying and neutering of owned pets did not begin to become common until the 1970s, and for most of the 20th century the United States had a severe pet overpopulation problem. The spay-neuter movement (and a concomitant change in people’s attitudes toward allowing pets to run free) caused shelter intake to plunge in the years from 1970 to 2000, to the point where the number of available homes and the number of homeless pets came into much better balance. All at once, it was possible for shelters to begin to think about rehoming their animals rather than killing them. Today, many cities and counties have renamed their shelters to add the word “care,” as in “animal care and control.” Public shelters have increasingly undertaken a duty to provide the best outcomes for animals in their care, not just keep them off the streets. Private-sector rescues and humane societies have increasingly devoted themselves to helping public shelters save as many animals as possible.

This new mission to save as many animals as possible requires shelters that are capable of operating at a much higher level of professionalism. Some changes in shelter operations began to be made as far back as the 1970s, but it has only been in the last few years that the sheltering profession has matured. Animal sheltering today finally has data-driven professional standards and operating procedures to match the level of other civic institutions like public health and law enforcement. Part 1 of this blog series described internal program changes that have recently revolutionized sheltering. This blog looks at changes in the civic milieu that have helped shelters operate more efficiently and effectively, so that they can carry out those programs.

Academic (“Deep Dive”) Reference Materials

Animal sheltering has been virtually ignored by academia, but we are beginning to see hints of change. We now have an online certificate course in shelter lifesaving at the University of the Pacific, taught by Bonney Brown and Diane Blankenburg of Humane Network. We also have textbooks and in-depth guides available on an increasing number of shelter issues. One example is Every Nose Counts: Using Metrics in Animal Shelters, written by veterinarians Janet Scarlett, Mike Greenberg, and Tiva Hoshizaki and published recently by Maddie’s Fund. Every Nose Counts has detailed, cutting-edge explanations on topics like length of stay, capacity for care, and live release rate, written in understandable and practical terms. It is a comprehensive guide that shows how any shelter can gather data and use it to make shelter operations much more efficient and effective. Another example is Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff, a 700-plus page textbook on shelter medicine edited by the ASPCA’s Lila Miller and Stephen Zawistowski. A second edition of this text was published in 2013. Books like these are not only important in themselves, they also help pave the way for sheltering to be taken seriously as a topic for academic publishing in the future.

Along with textbooks on general topics, we are also seeing more and more detailed guides on particular topics in shelter lifesaving. One example is the Alley Cat Allies Shelter Series. This series offers four guides written in conjunction with Humane Network. These guides are exceptionally detailed. The “Saving Cats and Kittens with a Foster Care Program” guide, for example, is 90 pages, with appendices. One would be hard-pressed to think of any aspect or detail of setting up a cat or kitten foster program that is not covered in this guide. Other guides in the series include setting up and managing a cat Help Desk, how to gain community acceptance for a shelter-neuter-return program, and how to get people and organizations involved in TNR programs. The guides are available for free download and in hard copy.

These are just a few examples of the new generation of reference materials that support shelter reform. What distinguishes them from the type of books, brochures, and pamphlets we used to see is the level of detail and the academic rigor of the presentations. It’s only in recent years that No Kill has standardized and professionalized operations to such an extent that experts in the field can write confidently and in detail about procedures that have been proven to work in many different shelters and under widely different starting conditions.


Even with great reference materials available, it can be hard for shelter directors to take the plunge and start making changes. Consultants seem to be particularly valuable in helping directors decide to take that first step on the road to reform. There is a lot of information about No Kill online, and advocates often think that shelter directors should be able to implement No Kill techniques by themselves, simply by being told about the programs. That doesn’t seem to happen very often, though, and those directors who can’t effectively get started on their own can often do excellent work once they have the help of a consultant.

A shelter can’t just be shut down for a few weeks while the director experiments with how to do a community cat program or set up managed admission. A consultant who knows exactly how to implement a program can give the director confidence that it will work and chaos will not be the result. A consultant can also offer solutions in the many cases where a shelter director has implemented a program but did not get the expected results. For example, if a marketing campaign did not raise the number of adoptions, or a spay-neuter initiative did not decrease intake, a consultant can diagnose the problem and offer recommendations to make the program more effective. Consultants can also help with issues that go beyond the usual expertise of shelter directors, such as getting an ordinance revised to allow Return to Field, or getting community acceptance for a managed admission program.

In recent years a few excellent consulting services for shelter reform have been founded, including Humane Network and Target Zero. We still don’t have enough shelter consultants, but they are making a noticeable impact. Several communities that have very successful No Kill shelters got there with the help of consultants. We need more consultants than we have, and we also need ways to offset the costs of consulting. In another blog in this series I will be discussing state and regional No Kill networks. These networks may offer another way for shelter directors to get No Kill consulting.

A New Generation of Shelter Buildings

The first public dog shelter in the United States, founded in 1870, had large pens for the dogs. This arrangement, called “gang pens,” became the standard dog housing for shelters for decades to come. Many shelters in that era did not take in cats, but when they did, the cats were often housed in rooms with open shelves, a kind of gang pen for cats.

A second generation of shelters that were built starting around the mid-20th century used corridor-style housing for dogs and cages for cats. These shelters were designed to deal with pet overpopulation, and they were often ugly concrete-block buildings located near the town dump. Animals typically were not held for very long, and these shelters were designed for efficient processing of the large numbers of animals taken in and killed.

Today we are seeing a third generation of shelter buildings, designed in a completely different way and for a different purpose. Most notably, the third-generation shelter building welcomes the community to come in and meet the animals and participate in everything from adoption events to cat yoga. These shelters are ideally located in high-traffic areas where people shop and play. They are designed to draw in people who might not have thought about visiting a shelter.

The third-generation shelter is highly efficient, but it also places great emphasis on making shelter spaces pleasant for both animals and people, with as much of a homelike atmosphere as possible. The Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center, built at the San Francisco SPCA in 1998, was an early prototype of this idea. It housed animals in furnished rooms, and the entire Center was designed to help prospective adopters imagine how a pet would fit into their own homes. Today’s third-generation shelter buildings have a variety of types of housing, from congregate to solo, with enrichment built in. They also have veterinary clinics in-house, and isolation areas to keep down the spread of disease. Much attention is given to the type of surfaces used and to air exchange and controlling noise and odors.

When a community gets a third-generation shelter, the live release rate often goes up, even if it was already high. One shelter that was struggling to stay at 90% in its old shelter saw its live release rate shoot up to around 95% in its new building. Such shelters can become strong enough to offer assistance to their entire region.

Shelter Medicine

Several of the most effective shelter-management concepts that have become widespread in recent years have been designed or heavily influenced by veterinarians who specialize in shelter medicine. Return-to-Field, managed admission, capacity for care, neonatal kitten programs, and the new generation of shelter buildings would not be what they are today without the influence of shelter veterinarians. Shelter veterinarians are also increasingly influential as consultants for shelter reform efforts.

The first-ever course in shelter medicine was presented in 1999 at the Cornell veterinary college in Ithaca, New York, taught by Dr. Jan Scarlett of Cornell and Dr. Lila Miller of the ASPCA . That same year, the board of the Tompkins County SPCA, which runs the public shelter in Ithaca, made a No Kill declaration and began to improve its live release rate. It’s probably no accident that a city that was at the forefront of shelter medicine was also an early adopter of No Kill sheltering.

Another important step forward for shelter medicine that also occurred in 1999 was a Maddie’s Fund grant for the first shelter medicine residency program. Dr. Kate Hurley was the resident, and she is now head of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Shelter medicine proved to be an immensely popular career choice for veterinary students, and in 2014 it was recognized as a specialty.

Shelter medicine specialists in today’s shelters may be involved in virtually every aspect of operations. We have a shortage today of top-level talent to run shelters, and cities and counties are increasingly looking to shelter veterinarians to run not just the shelter’s medical clinic, but the entire shelter.


High Quality, High Volume Spay-Neuter (HQHVSN) clinics can be a critical part of shelter reform, particularly in places that have a high intake relative to human population. The model for such clinics was created by bringing professional management techniques to a difficult issue – how to make quality spay-neuter services accessible and affordable for pet owners while achieving a high enough volume to control cat and dog populations. For much more on this subject check out Humane Alliance, which has developed a sustainable model for HQHVSN and mentors people who are setting up and operating HQHVSN clinics.


When you look at the innovative inventory-management programs discussed in the first blog in this series, and the new methods of implementing those programs discussed in this blog, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are falling into place. But true professionalization of the animal sheltering system in the United States requires looking beyond the level of the individual community. The next three blogs in this series will discuss how the professionalization of animal sheltering is operating at the national level.


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