Animal shelters may never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, chief veterinarian at OC Animal Care in Orange County, California, one of the largest municipal animal shelters in the state, spoke during the session “Transitioning to the New Era of Animal Sheltering” on Aug. 21 at the AVMA Virtual Convention 2020 about COVID-19–related changes and what the future of animal sheltering may look like.
“This is a major opportunity to shift sheltering in the direction we always thought it should go,” Dr. Hawkins said. “We are changing the messaging.”
She wants the community to see animal shelters as a source of emergency housing and urgent care only instead of as a place to relinquish animals when things get rough.
The release of the “Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters” (PDF) by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians a decade ago helped change various elements of animal sheltering. Organizations have since used the document as a benchmark for changes to improve the health and welfare of animals under shelter care.
The ASV released a statement in June saying the organization convened a task force of 19 experts in shelter medicine to review and revise the document. There is no current timeline for release of new guidelines.
Animal shelters should be the last resort. By shifting to greater community engagement, we can create operations that allow our shelters to operate within capacity for care, rather than be completely overwhelmed and strained to deliver the care and enrichment we are driven to provide. So, this is our huge opportunity for major system change within the animal sheltering world.
Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, chief veterinarian at OC Animal Care in Orange County, California
“We are planning to review and revise the guidelines document in its entirety, from facility design to population management,” said Dr. Lena DeTar, a member of the task force, in a press release. “New content will be added that will reflect the diversity and breadth of tasks shelter professionals find themselves doing every day.”
The pandemic also has shifted some procedures used by animal shelters, with a move toward performing adoptions virtually or by appointment only. Many shelters are accepting fewer or no healthy stray animals. But the pandemic also may change the mission of the whole sheltering field.
“Animal shelters should be the last resort,” Dr. Hawkins said. “By shifting to greater community engagement, we can create operations that allow our shelters to operate within capacity for care, rather than be completely overwhelmed and strained to deliver the care and enrichment we are driven to provide. So, this is our huge opportunity for major system change within the animal sheltering world.”
A good step toward this goal is educating community members on whether animals need to be brought to shelters. If someone finds an outdoor cat, Dr. Hawkins said, the person could consider whether it may be taken care of and fed by a neighbor before bringing it to a shelter.
Dr. Hawkins suggested the following tips for how animals shelters may implement procedures:
- Rethink the mission of a shelter. Is the mission to accept every animal or to support the human-animal bond?
- Encourage the use of social media platforms for reuniting lost pets with owners.
- Offer virtual training sessions on subjects such as fostering and bottle-feeding to engage community members and potential volunteers.
- Remove barriers to pet adoption so all individuals can benefit from the human-animal bond.
- Participate in solutions by joining an association.
Dr. Hawkins said implementing some of these changes at OC Animal Care has led to better interactions between staff members and prospective pet adopters with appointments. Plus, the animals are much calmer.
“Excellence is possible through our combined efforts,” Dr. Hawkins said. “Our aim is to be a resource and to facilitate help for animals and maintaining the human-animal bond when it is strained.”