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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Important Progress on Shelter Intake Policies

A group of organizations involved in animal sheltering, including large mainstream organizations such as HSUS, Maddie’s Fund, and the ASPCA, has just released a draft whitepaper with this stated purpose:  “to identify meaningful ways to realize California’s policy ‘that no adoptable [or treatable] animal should be euthanized if it can be adopted into a suitable home.'” The whitepaper makes 23 recommendations overall, several of which apply to intake policies. Notably, the whitepaper recommends that all shelters should establish an appointment system for owner surrenders (see recommendations 1 and 2), that shelters should use their discretion to decline to accept animals when full (see recommendation 3), and that shelters should not impound healthy cats unless the shelter is not euthanizing cats (see recommendation 13).

The whitepaper sets forth the many advantages of appointment systems for owner surrenders, such as scheduling intake at a time when the shelter can best handle it and allowing the shelter to get information about the pet. It points out that intake can actually be reduced by an appointments policy, because an appointment provides an opportunity to refer the owner to resources that can help the owner retain the pet. The whitepaper recommends providing the owner with “an honest appraisal of the likely outcome for their pet if it enters the shelter (adoption vs. euthanasia).” The recommendation for an appointment policy includes two exceptions — if an animal is unhealthy or if there is “an urgent situation or risk to the animal or community” then no appointment should be required.

The whitepaper further recommends: “Shelters should balance optional intake [] with their proven capacity to maintain humane conditions and positive outcomes for new intakes and the animals in their care.” In other words, if the shelter is full, the shelter should consider refusing optional admissions (such as healthy, non-emergency owner surrenders). In addition, the whitepaper recommends that shelters should not impound healthy cats, or if they are impounded, should return them to where they are found. The recommendation is crystal clear: “No healthy cat, regardless of temperament, should be admitted by an animal shelter if the admission of that cat would cause the death of that cat or another cat in the shelter.”

The whitepaper is only a draft at this point, and it was developed to apply to the situation in California, but nevertheless the issuance of this report seems to me to be a watershed moment. In the past several years progressive shelters have been experimenting with creative new policies such as Help Desks, appointments for owner surrenders, and waiting lists to reduce the number of animals surrendered. These shelters have found that many owners would like to keep their pets and just need to be referred to help for behavior problems, vet bills, or finding pet-friendly housing. Shelters have found that if they are full and ask owners to wait to surrender their pet, most owners will agree because they want to help the shelter help their pet. These new recommendations codify what progressive shelters have been seeing for years — owners will behave responsibly when asked. We now have some of the largest animal welfare organizations in the country recognizing that these progressive owner-surrender policies work and recommending that they become standard practice.

The recommendation that shelters not impound healthy cats, and return such cats when impounded (unless the shelter is in a position where it does not have to euthanize cats), is an even bigger groundbreaking advance. The report points out that outcomes are much worse in California shelters for cats as compared to dogs, and that shelters are not doing cats any favor when they impound them only to kill them. People expect cats to roam and, when a cat disappears, they often do not think to check the shelter until the hold period has expired and the cat has been killed. The whitepaper notes that return-to-owner rates for cats are extremely low — around 2% nationally. In fact, “cats are at least 13 times more likely to return home by means other than the shelter.”

Up until now, relatively few of the shelters that I’ve researched have had a policy of not impounding community cats. Hopefully the release of this whitepaper will encourage more shelters to take this step. It’s exciting to think that, by this one change in policy, the number of cats killed in shelters each year could plummet.

Another important step forward that could result from this whitepaper is that it may finally end the debate over “open admission.” There is a segment of the animal-shelter community that insists that shelters should accept every animal presented to them, upon demand, with no conditions and no questions asked. They define this as “open admission,” and they label all shelters who do not have this policy as “limited admission.” They blame “limited admission” shelters for the high kill rates found in many “open admission” shelters, on the theory that open admission shelters are overwhelmed with animals turned away by limited admission shelters. We now have this whitepaper from a large group of animal welfare agencies, including HSUS, the ASPCA, and Maddie’s Fund, that essentially says this idea is nonsense and that “open admission” is bad policy.

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