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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Importance of the Animal Shelter Building

Until recent years, public animal shelter buildings were designed with the idea that a high percentage of the dogs and cats taken in would be killed. In a traditional, high-kill shelter the owner surrenders were often killed immediately, and unclaimed stray-hold animals were killed after a few days. Many traditional shelters made a small number of select animals available for adoption, but even those animals were killed if they did not get adopted quickly.

Under such circumstances, the thinking was that the health and comfort of the animals was not a big concern because they would not be in the shelter for long. Efficiency was more important in shelter design than concern for the animals. That meant locating the shelter near a landfill and building a big loading dock in the back to make it as easy as possible to load dead animals and haul them away. In fact, this blog’s title, “Out the Front Door,” is taken from a phrase that Rich Avanzino used in the San Francisco SPCA’s 1995 Adoption Pact brochure. The brochure characterized No Kill in San Francisco as a change from animals being “quietly euthanized and taken out the back door” to “going out the front door” into loving homes.

As the mission of animal shelters changed, their design began to change too. Sheltering animals with the purpose of having them leave the shelter alive required much more attention to disease control. This meant that animals could no longer be packed together into small spaces, and that quarantine areas were needed. Air exchange became very important. In old-fashioned shelters cats were often kept in banks of small cages near or even in sight of the dog runs, something that could not be tolerated in a modern shelter. Cleaning methods included hosing down runs with dogs in them, or housing animals on grates, both of which are unacceptable in a well-designed building. The old style of shelter building made it very difficult to provide a good customer experience. All these defects of traditional shelter buildings had to be changed in shelters built for No Kill.

Today, No Kill shelter design has become a thing.

LHS lobby

The cost of a new shelter can be substantial – even relatively small shelters can cost in the $4-5 million range. But these costs can frequently be offset, and private humane societies in particular have been extremely successful at fund-raising for new shelters. It is more challenging to persuade municipalities to invest in a new shelter, since cities and counties today have many infrastructure needs. It isn’t hopeless, though. One possible answer for a city or county is to have a non-profit organization raise money to turn over to the local government for a new shelter. Another would be a ballot measure to approve a millage earmarked for a new shelter.

For shelter operators that cannot afford a new building and where fund-raising is not practical (for example, if the city or county owns the land and the building and is not interested in building a new shelter) a lot can be done to cheaply retrofit the existing building. An outdoor space can be landscaped as an area for adopters to get to know dogs or to see how their current dog gets along with a potential new family member. The entry to the shelter can be expanded and transformed from institutional to welcoming. A shelter I visited last week opened up one wall in the entry so that visitors can see into the operations area and be quickly greeted. In the opposite wall a large window was added to give a view into a cat playroom, which had been converted from storage closets.

One area where retrofitting an old shelter seems to fail in many cases is with “grey area” animals. At around an 80% live release rate, the difficulty level in saving animals seems to ratchet up. As I’ve heard from more than one shelter director, after 80% the job of getting to No Kill can get exponentially harder because the animals remaining to be saved are ones that have serious issues. The goal of No Kill is to save all healthy and treatable animals. What seems to happen around the 80% or 85% mark is that the answer to whether a remaining animal is treatable may be “yes, but . . . .” These animals may need extensive rehabilitation for medical or behavioral issues, or need a special home.

Grey-area animals can include those who are more susceptible to infections, such as young kittens and animals with skin disease. The ideal thing is to get those animals out of the shelter and into foster homes as quickly as possible, but fosters are not always available. Even with retrofitting it can be very hard to save those animals in an old-fashioned shelter. In such cases a modern shelter designed with disease control in mind can be a lifesaver. This was the result with the Lynchburg Humane Society when they built their new shelter (see photo above).

Dog behavior cases are another group of grey-area animals who are hard to accommodate in an old, poorly designed shelter building. A crowded, older shelter may have to co-house dogs, and some dogs cannot tolerate this. Even if the shelter has enough space to allow a dog to have its own run, the dog may still deteriorate from stress and noise. A dog that might have been just fine behaviorally in a modern shelter may become aggressive or a stressed-out basket case in the environment of an old-fashioned shelter. People can be amazingly creative in making an old shelter building work in the world of modern sheltering, but there are limits to retrofitting.

Since the purpose of animal shelters has changed so dramatically in the last 25 years, one of the goals of No Kill should be making sure that the local shelter building is reformed along with the mission. Shelter animals deserve safe, humane housing while they wait for placement. And a new shelter building can be the capstone of a community’s effort to go No Kill. A new shelter building can symbolize, in bricks and mortar, the community’s commitment to the type of sheltering that sends animals out the front door alive, healthy, and happy.


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