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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Professionalization of Animal Sheltering, Part 1: Inventory Management

In the last few years several new programs have become central to the professionalization of animal sheltering. One theme common to those programs is management of inventory. In the old days, directors of traditional shelters complained that they were the victims of the irresponsible public, and that they had no control over the “flood” of animals coming in the door. Today, No Kill and traditional shelters are developing ways of managing the inventory problem, and those methods are rapidly spreading throughout the industry.

Managed Admission

It seems like such a minor thing – asking people in non-emergency situations if they would be willing to make an appointment to bring their pet to the shelter to surrender it, rather than simply dropping the pet off without warning. But this “minor” adjustment in shelter procedures has had huge impact for the many shelters that have tried it. In fact, managed admission is a keystone program for the professionalization of animal sheltering, in that it makes many other innovations and improvements possible. It may be the most effective method of managing inventory that shelters have ever had.

Managed admission affects only the “owner surrender” portion of a shelter’s intake, but owner surrenders are half or more of intake for many shelters. And the other main source of intake, impounds by animal control officers, is more predictable simply because it is limited by the number of animal control officers on duty on any given day.

The most obvious effect of managed admission is that it smooths out peaks and valleys in a shelter’s workload. A shelter director who uses managed admission has a much better idea of how many animals are going to enter the shelter on a particular day, which allows for better planning. Peaks and valleys in intake, such as receiving 30 animals one day and 5 the next, are stressful for staff and for the animals, and make it almost impossible to run a shelter smoothly. This in turn can lead to mistakes and poor customer service. And requiring an appointment to surrender a pet gives shelter staff an opportunity to learn more about the pet, ask for its health records, and find out if there is any way to head off surrender.

A less obvious but perhaps even more important result of managed admission is its effect on the community’s pet owners. Shelters that have implemented managed admission find that it helps to change community attitudes toward pets and make people more responsible. If a shelter treats surrender as a serious business, worthy of an appointment, it discourages people from thinking of their pet as disposable. Another effect of managed admission is that it seems to encourage people to make more of an effort to find a home for their pet themselves. With easy access to social networks today, a person can often find a home for a pet with a friend, neighbor, or family member, and this gives the owner peace of mind as well as being easier on the pet than a trip to the shelter.

In recent years shelters have found that in the case of non-emergency surrenders, many people are happy to help the shelter by temporarily fostering the pet they want to surrender. For example, if a person wants to surrender a litter of 5-week-old kittens, they may be willing to not only get the mom spayed, but foster the kittens for three weeks until they can be adopted. Or, if they have an adult dog or cat to surrender, they may be willing to foster their pet while the shelter helps them find a rescue placement or adoptive home.

One of the improvements that managed admission makes possible is assessment of a shelter’s capacity for care. Knowing a shelter’s capacity for care is essential for deciding how space within the shelter should be allocated. Capacity for care can help guide decisions about the number of veterinary staff that must be on board. It can even affect how successful the shelter’s adoption program will be, since adoption rates go up in shelters that “right-size” their inventories.

Managed admission has been criticized by some traditional shelter personnel who fear that it will lead to increased pet abandonment. That has not turned out to be the case with shelters that have tried it, however. One reason is that shelters generally waive the requirement to make an appointment if it’s an emergency and an owner truly needs to surrender the pet without notice. Another reason is probably that when people are expected to be responsible with their pets, they will be.

A little-noticed but important aspect of managed admission is that it has the power to finally and completely wipe out the distinction between “open admission” and “limited admission” shelters. “Open admission” was never a desirable way to run a shelter. It invites chaos, since it asserts no control whatever over inventory. As discussed in a later blog in this series, managed admission, by offering an improvement over previous admission strategies, is an important aspect of the rapprochement between No Kill and the traditional shelter industry.

Managed admission was one suggestion in the draft California whitepaper, released in 2013, which made 23 recommendations for shelter professionalization. If we wanted to pinpoint the date when the current wave of professionalization of animal sheltering began, the release of this whitepaper in 2013 would be as good a date as any. The whitepaper gathered several revolutionary suggestions together in one document, which was endorsed by HSUS, ASPCA, Maddie’s Fund, and a variety of No Kill and traditional shelters.

Return to Field

Another critical inventory-control program for modern shelters is Return to Field (RTF), also known as Shelter-Neuter-Return, also known as the Community Cats paradigm. This program was tested in the Jacksonville shelter system in the mid-2000s. It came to wide attention in 2013, when it was included in the draft California whitepaper on shelter reform. The wildly successful Million Cat Challenge is built around RTF, and has enrolled hundreds of shelters.

Some people confuse RTF with Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), because both programs involve sterilizing cats and returning them to where they were found. TNR is generally done by volunteers or non-profit organizations, however, and targets feral cats who have caregivers, whereas RTF is done by public shelters and targets unidentified healthy cats of any socialization status found outdoors. In many shelters, healthy, unidentified cats found outdoors make up half or more of the cat population. The implementation of a program that simply sterilizes and vaccinates these cats and returns them to where they were found can have an enormous impact on length-of-stay and live release rates for cats. RTF is a complete game-changer for shelter cats.

Some people oppose RTF because they feel that all cats should be held in a shelter for a week or more to see if their owners will reclaim them. It is very important to give owned cats their best chance at being reunited with their families, but RTF actually gives cats a far better chance to return home than sitting in the shelter. In fact, a scientific study on this issue showed that lost and stray cats are 13 times more likely to return home on their own than they are to be reclaimed in a shelter. Many cat owners do not think to look at the shelter for a lost cat, and if they do look it is likely to be long after the hold period has expired. And many outdoor cats are only loosely attached to their “homes.” They may receive food and some degree of shelter from a family that does not really look on them as an owned pet, or they may have a circuit of homes in a neighborhood that they visit. The reclaim rates for cats in shelters are usually in single digits, even at good shelters that try hard to raise cat reclaim rates. A typical cat reclaim rate is 2-3%.

Not only is holding a cat in a shelter likely to prevent the cat from getting back home, it’s also very bad for the cat. Shelters, with all their noise and activity, are stressful for cats, and stressed cats can get sick. Cats may show behaviors in the shelter that keep them from getting adopted, whereas in a neighborhood or home setting they are tame and friendly. Holding healthy outdoor cats in the shelter is also inefficient, as it takes up space and employee time that could be used in extra care for sick and injured cats and rehoming owner surrenders and kittens. For all these reasons, RTF has proven to be extremely popular and is rapidly being adopted by both No Kill and traditional shelters.


Transport for dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) has been around since the 1970s. In recent years, though, transport has become a critical way for shelters to use inventory management at the national level to save lives. Today, public shelters in the northeast, parts of the upper Midwest, most of Colorado, and metro areas in the Pacific northwest routinely have dog shortages, and they rely on transports to meet the demand for pets from people who want to “adopt, not shop.” Many people who come to shelters to find a pet do so because they want to save a life. Transports make this possible in places that otherwise would have a very limited selection of adoptable pets. The sending shelters are communities that have more pets than they can place, so transports very directly save lives. There are no national statistics on the number of shelter pets transported each year, but I would guess that number is currently over 100,000. Colorado shelters alone reported taking in some 35,000 pets from out of state in 2016, a number that has gone up dramatically in recent years.

Transport, like RTF, has been criticized by some. The usual reason for criticizing transports is the argument that no animal should be transported into a community unless 100% of shelter animals within the community are being saved. That criticism has failed to stop transports, possibly because the people involved in transports have seen the positive results for themselves, and possibly because receiving communities generally have very high live release rates for shelter animals. The increasing desire of people to “adopt not shop” shows that people don’t want to buy pets from commercial breeders, but if the local shelter does not have a variety of pets, people may be forced to turn to a pet store or backyard breeder.

As discussed in a later blog in this series, transport may have a very important role to play in the future of animal sheltering. Transports may make it possible for No Kill in the United States to begin to have an international reach.

Saving Neonatal Kittens

With the resources freed up by professionalizing the management of inventory, shelters are able to do more for some of their most vulnerable populations. An example is neonatal kittens. Shelters tend to receive a lot of kittens in the spring and summer months, a period known as “kitten season” in animal sheltering. People may find a litter of kittens near their home and decide to take them to the shelter, not realizing that the mother is probably hiding nearby. Very young motherless kittens require round-the-clock care in order to survive, and they are highly susceptible to disease. Traditional shelters generally euthanized such kittens on intake, because they did not have the resources to keep them alive until they were old enough to be adopted.

Today, progressive shelters are setting up foster networks to save these neonatal kittens. Kittens are highly adoptable if they can reach 8 weeks of age, so caring for neonatal kittens is a great option for people who want to foster but who cannot take on what might be a several-months commitment to an older pet or one with disabilities.

Another option for neonatal kittens is a special medical ward with round-the-clock staffing. One of the major tools in Best Friends’ effort to make Los Angeles a No Kill city is a neonatal nursey. The nursery is the center of an effort that aims to save 3000 neonatal kittens in Los Angeles this year. The Best Friends program uses both fosters and the nursery in its effort to save kittens.

Helping Large Dogs

One of the biggest issues for shelters that are trying to improve live release rates is finding good placements for large dogs with high energy levels or behavior issues. The environment of the traditional shelter works against such dogs, because the typical housing arrangement in a shelter is a noisy kennel surrounded by other dogs. A dog’s behavior and mental status can quickly deteriorate under those conditions. The atypical lifestyle of a dog in a shelter can also mask a dog’s normal behavior, making it difficult for shelter workers to know what type of home would be a good match for each dog.

Large dogs with behavior issues are an inventory concern because they tend to stay in the shelter longer than well-socialized and smaller dogs. In any bell-curve chart of length-of-stay, large dogs with behavior issues are likely to be in the “long tail.” Part of the professionalization of animal sheltering is the realization that this group of dogs requires special programs to reduce their intake and increase their adoptability.

Dogs Playing for Life, a program developed by Aimee Sadler, is an elegant solution for cage stress in dogs. This program gets dogs out of their kennels and into playgroups, where they can have fun, work off excess energy, and learn social skills under the watchful eye of trained facilitators. Playgroups not only help keep dogs mentally healthy, they also help shelter workers get a much better idea of how a dog will behave in a home outside the shelter. Play groups can even help with capacity-for-care issues, as kennel cleaning can be done efficiently while dogs are in their play groups.

A program that can help reduce the number of hard-to-place dogs coming into shelters is Pets for Life, developed by HSUS. This program aims to reduce the number of animals coming into shelters by going into underserved communities and offering free care, including spay-neuter. When outreach efforts have gained the trust of residents, they are much more likely to take advantage of services.

The approach of offering help rather than coercion is being applied to another long-standing problem, dogs kept on chains. Several organizations have begun offering to build fences for people so that their dogs can be outdoors safely, without the dreaded chain.


One of the striking aspects of the programs discussed in this blog is that they are being widely adopted by both traditional and No Kill shelters. That is partly because the programs are so effective that they sell themselves, but it is also because the shelter industry has matured and is now recognized by local governments as an important aspect of civic life and good city management. My next blog will look at some of the new factors at work in encouraging and implementing professionalization in animal sheltering.


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