Controlling Disease

One of the greatest challenges that we have is to control disease in our animal shelter.  The problem begins with a community that fails to vaccinate their pets and allows them to roam to deposit or collect viruses in the community.  The animals are then brought to the animal shelter.

Most animal shelters vaccinate pets on intake.  The problem is that it takes weeks for the vaccine to take effect.  In that time, the animal can be exposed to other pets entering the shelter to spread of collect disease to or from those animals.

The greatest vector for disease in the shelter is people.  If staff does not take the proper precautions, they may spread disease from animal to animal while cleaning or feeding their animals.  Allowing the public to come in and view animals is the greatest mechanism for spreading disease throughout the shelter; no matter how we instruct our citizens to not touch the animals, they cannot control themselves and feel the need to touch one animal after another, becoming the greatest vector for spreading disease within a shelter.

I often encourage people wanting to surrender their pets to wait until their pet has been fully vaccinated for 30 days, so as to allow the vaccinations to take hold and offer the animal some protection from entering the shelter.

It is a good idea to not move animals around within the shelter.  There is nothing worse that to experience an outbreak in your shelter to find that the carrier of the disease had been moved previously throughout the shelter exposing other animals.  Outbreaks are the most common in shelter that operate at capacity or beyond capacity.  Managing the shelter population aids in managing disease.

How long do you hold an animal.

Early in my career, I worked out a deal with the local newspaper to accept my photographs of animals that I had in the shelter.  It was not uncommon for me to run the same animals week after week in hopes of finding a home for that animal.

I was approached by the Police Chief claiming that one of the City Council had noted that he was seeing animals listed week after week; he saw that as evidence that I was not “cleaning house.”  The Chief ordered that I euthanize any animal that had been in the shelter over two weeks.

Today, people get upset if your are thinking of euthanizing an animal that has been in the shelter months or years.  Clearly things have changed.  The decision to hold an animal depends of many things: your holding space, the chances of adoption for that animal, the mental and physical condition of the animal, the ability to provide diversions for the animal (long walks, socializing, etc.).  Just as it is inhumane to kill an animal prematurely, it is just as inhumane to keep an animal caged its entire life.


We frequently prove ourselves as an ignorant species.

I read recently about a Michigan man being bit by his pet cobra.  I am reminded about the number of venomous snakes that we had to deal with in Milwaukee.  I believe that people who own such animals have the deleterious gene for stupidity.  We usually discovered the hoard of reptiles after the owner gets bitten.  Then there is a frantic call for anti – venom that is in short supply.  We need that anti-venom for zoo workers.

It is quite an experience for animal shelter workers when they are forced to house these reptiles, and that is not a good experience.  You would be amazed as to the number of people who keep snakes and the number of venomous ones they choose to call pets.

The bottom line on this issue for me is that we are dealing with natural selection.  Smart communities ban the ownership of such animals because some people are not born with the sense to know that venomous snakes are not pets.

What is it like to run an animal shelter?

Working in animal welfare is a very volatile profession.  I found it much more stressful than working narcotics on the Mexican Border.  At least on the border I could forget about work when I came to the end of my shift.

In animal welfare, you worry about the condition of animals coming into your facility, you worry about animals getting sick in the shelter, you worry about your staff using bad judgment, causing injury to an animal.  While you are worrying about all of that, you then have to worry about your volunteers or animal advocate “friends” looking to find something wrong, so they can report it to the media.

You are in a constant state of worrying about whether you should self-treat an animal or run it to a veterinarian.  I spent much of my time taking animals home, so that I could watch them overnight.  Someone is always in the background wanting to second guess your medical decisions.  No one ever second guessed a narcotics seizure.

You never come to realize the stress that you face running an animal shelter until you have had time to decompress from it.  You cannot imagine the relief that I feel waking up every morning and not worrying about what happened the night before at the shelter.


There is an old saying, “There are three kinds of lies: “lies, damn lies and statistics.” Our profession is one that lives on statistics. When someone is looking at your shelter, they want to know the live release rate, even if they don’t know what that means. The people that we work for want to know how we compare to the shelter in the next town.

Municipalities became so concerned as to comparing statistics, that in Florida they created the Benchmarking Consortium so as to compare apples to apples when looking at the size and structure of organizations. I was tasked to provide benchmarking for the animal services area.

The easiest way to benchmark is to compare statistics to the population size of your community. It is one thing to say that you had 1,000 adoptions for the year compared to the 500 in the next town, but if your population is double that of the next town your statistics are the same. So in comparing intakes and outcomes by population, you begin to see a better picture as to how communities compares to another.

Benchmarking is a great way to present budgets for under budgeted organizations. City/County Managers are always looking to cut budgets and the animal shelter is on top for cuts. It is easier to show that your budget at $1.23 per capita is low to your neighboring city’s budget of $4.67.

When your local advocates are screaming at you for not doing more, you can use benchmarking to show that you are doing just as well (or better) as anyone else in your area or that you have budget constraints that hinder peak performance. Statistics can be your friend.

Minimizing the Effect of Euthanasia on Staff

Performing euthanasia is the most stressful aspect of being an animal shelter employee. I witnessed a couple of work burnouts as a result of euthanizing animals that I had become fond of. The problem is greatest for smaller operations.

When I started out in this profession, I handled every aspect of an animal’s cycle through my shelter:

  • I was the Animal Control Officer, responsible for responding to complaints and impounding animals in the field.
  • I was the Animal Attendant, responsible for the daily care of the animals.
  • I was the Vet Tech, responsible for maintaining the daily health of the animals.
  • I was the Shelter Manager, responsible for deciding which animals needed to by euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.
  • I was the Euthanasia Tech, responsible for the euthanizing and disposal of the animals.

Although euthanasia, at any level, is stressful, compartmentalizing each aspect can reduce the stress that is experienced by any one individual.  The greatest stress reliever is to insure that the euthanasia process is handled well; by competent, caring staff.  By relieving stress on the animal, helps relieve stress on those performing the task.

The last moments of an animal’s life should be performed with the greatest compassion.

Hiring New Employees

You would think that having a love for animals would be sufficient to work in an animal shelter; however, much of the work we deal with involves working with people. A high school level of education is sufficient, but I have watched employees struggling with simple math.

I would suggest that you offer an examination that tests applicants on people and math skills. It is not necessary that a person loves animals to be in our field, they just need to appear that they love animals in all that they do.

I always told my staff that when dealing with a person, pretend that they are talking with the Mayor. When dealing with an animal, pretend that they are dealing with my pet.

No Room for Mistakes

This afternoon, I was reminded that as humans, we are susceptible to making mistakes.  Arriving home from a drive thru, I was shorted medium size tatter tots.  Most mistakes are innocuous and cause little or no harm.

One of the greatest stresses of running an animal shelter is that you’ve entered a profession that has little room for mistakes.  Mistakes can throw off drug counts, cause the over (or under) vaccination of an animal and can even cause the death of an animal.  You cannot “undo” many of the mistakes that are available to us in this profession.  As an old carpenter would tell you, “measure twice, cut once.”  It doesn’t hurt to have three eyes on everything that you do.

There is nothing worse that to accidently euthanize an owner’s pet.  For that reason, I would not allow any animal to be euthanized until I looked at the animal and checked it against our records.  We live in a business in which there exist so many similar looking animals, that you can NEVER be too careful.

Moral Obligations

With increasing pressure to maintain high release rates, many animal shelters will fail to report prior dog bites to prospective adopters.  This became such a problem in the Commonwealth of Virginia that a law had to be enacted to force shelters to come forward with an animal’s previous aggressive history.

I experienced this myself, working in Virginia, in which volunteers would attempt to bully me and my staff into ignoring the behaviors that we witnessed, so as to keep the animal on track for adoption.  Because I felt I had a higher calling to protect the public from aggressive animals, the volunteers pushed for my removal.

I am dumbfounded by the thought process that would hide such information from a perspective adopter.  Commonsense should have prevailed in warning a person about a pet’s previous behavior.  But, when it comes to saving animals, commonsense is not so common.  Animal Advocates believe that the life of an animal is a higher priority that the safety of a person, family, or the community.

I find it extremely troubling that it was necessary to force a moral obligation on animal shelters; however, I applaud the Commonwealth for making it necessary for shelters to do the right thing.  Think of the legal ramifications and potential loss of life if shelters were allowed to continue pushing aggressive animals to people.

Staff Management – The Greatest Challenge in Shelter Management

Since the onset of social media, staff management has become more difficult.  Social media can be so vicious that shelter staff wish to maintain a positive social media presence.  Fringe groups will recognize this need for shelter staff to be accepted that they will use social media pressure to turn the staff into warriors for their group.

Prior to hiring new employees, take a look at their social media posts to see if the applicants are more concerned about doing their job, or being social media friendly.  It doesn’t hurt to be social media friendly, as long as it does not place the community at risk.