Shelter vets aim to raise level of care for millions of animals

Standards of care guidelines bring unity to diverse community
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The Association of Shelter Veterinarians in December unveiled standards designed to enhance the health and welfare of millions of animals housed at the nation's shelters.

The ASV Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters is based on the Five Freedoms: freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

The genesis of this set of standards promoting animal welfare across the patchwork of shelters throughout the country occurred in 2001 with the formation of the ASV, which today has more than 750 members. But the real work didn't get under way until 2009 when the 14-member task force started writing guidelines that take into account the broad diversity within the shelter community. The standards the task force came up with allow for flexibility, with the goal being positive outcomes. They are by no means a step-by-step operational manual.

Association of Shelter Veterinarians

"We recognized that animals may be cared for in a variety of settings, and we wanted to provide recommendations that would be applicable regardless of size or mission of the organization," Dr. Sandra Newbury, task force chair, said. "We deliberately did not want to get too operational, recognizing that, depending on the size and resources of an organization, there will be different ways to meet those needs."

The guidelines are the result of thousands of hours of work by a task force comprised of veterinarians from academia, national organizations, municipal shelters, government, and the nonprofit sector. Topics addressed by the standards include sanitation, population management, behavioral health and mental well-being, medical health and physical well-being, animal handling, spay and neuter, animal transport, public health, and euthanasia.

Dog in a cage

While the AVMA had not yet conducted a formal review of the guidelines, Dr. Gail C. Golab of the AVMA believes they have the potential to bring about many positive changes. "An informal review suggests that, while not everyone may agree with every conclusion drawn or every recommendation made, the guidelines should serve as a valuable resource for sheltering facilities as they design protocols to protect the good welfare of animals under their care," said Dr. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division.

Shelters have their own unique histories, goals, and resources, and the ASV believed it would be nearly impossible to come up with engineering standards applicable to the range of entities the guidelines are intended for. "A performance-based standard using the Five Freedoms is really universally applicable," Dr. Gary Patronek, task force member, said. The Five Freedoms are basic principles that can be applied to animals cared for in a variety of settings, he noted.

The guidelines, Dr. Patronek added, are relevant for all settings that care for companion animals but are focused primarily on the specific needs of cats and dogs. Originally developed for farm animals, the freedoms are equally applicable to companion animals, but, until now, had not been applied to shelter situations, he said.

Within the shelter community is a wide range of operations striving to alleviate the homeless dog and cat problem, from large municipal facilities and private not-for-profit organizations to grass-roots rescue and even hospice organizations. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that U.S. animal shelters care annually for 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats, of which 3 million to 4 million are euthanized.

As progress is being made nationwide to reduce dog and cat overpopulation, more and more animals are spending longer periods of time in shelters. "This is a big change in mindset from a time when shelters were intended to be primarily short-term housing facilities and may not have had a strong focus on meeting the full range of animals' needs or ensuring welfare," said task force member Dr. Lila Miller.

Several cats in an enriched environment
Connecting cages with tunnels is a simple form of enrichment that can dramatically improve cat housing by providing more space and separate areas for eating, sleeping, and using the litter box.

Unlike laboratories, which must comply with extensive regulations, most animal shelters are self-governed. And, until now, no guidelines for standards of care in animal shelters existed, according to the ASV. "Animal sheltering is a largely unregulated effort," explained Dr. Jeanette O'Quinn, outgoing ASV president and task force member. "Although there are a number of national organizations that assist local shelters, there is no national governing body that regulates them."

Some states have responded to complaints about abuse and neglect at some shelters by passing legislation to improve standards through regulation. The ASV hopes its guidelines can influence similar legislative initiatives by providing an evidence-based consensus of opinion from veterinarians focusing on shelter medicine. The association also hopes shelters will use the information as they develop their own policies and procedures.

"Unacceptable" practices are identified in the guidelines, such as failure to identify and alleviate painful conditions, as are "must" practices that are necessary to achieve acceptable minimum standards of care. Preferred practices are denoted as "ideal"; for instance: "Expert input on all policies and protocols related to maintenance of physical and behavioral animal health should be provided by a veterinarian. Ideally, this veterinarian would have training or experience in shelter medicine as well as knowledge about the particular population."

We recognized that animals may be cared for in a variety of settings, and we wanted to provide recommendations that would be applicable regardless of size or mission of the organization.


The ASV has no plans for creating a certification process for shelters and recognizes it may not be possible for them to implement ideal recommendations in all circumstances. But the veterinary association believes every shelter should strive to do so. At a minimum, animal shelters have a responsibility to adhere to "must" practices and avoid those identified as "unacceptable."

Depending on the operation, implementing some of the standards may lead to increased costs—but the shelters may also see a decrease in operational expenses and improved animal welfare. "Increased infectious disease burdens are one potentially avoidable source of animal suffering. Simple changes in practice having little or no initial costs can greatly reduce the incidence of infectious diseases," Dr. Newbury noted.

In the coming months, ASV representatives will be promoting the guidelines at national and regional veterinary meetings as well as conferences for shelter administrators. There are also plans to take the guidelines abroad, with lectures slated for Australia and South Africa, among others. "The document is intended to be a living document that the ASV will periodically review and revise, as feedback from the shelter community and new scientific information becomes available, to ensure that it continues to be a useful resource," said Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, task force member and ASV president-elect.

The ASV Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters are available in a PDF format on the association's website at