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The Difficult Reality of Long-Term Care in Animal Shelters

Posted by at 6:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)


longtermcareJennifer Pickens / CC

I’ve managed and volunteered at several open-admission animal shelters over the years, and I can tell you that the care of dogs and cats in these shelters has always been far superior to the “care” that animals receive in university and private vivisection laboratories that I’ve visited. I often think of an old blind dog who lived for years as a blood donor at a veterinary school. He got out for walks now and then, but he was otherwise confined to a concrete run for his entire life. Although his living conditions were less hideous than those at an Iams laboratory that was exposed in a PETA undercover investigation, his treatment was still unethical, and he had no real quality of life.

Even with good care and intentions, the question remains: Is there a length of time that is too long for an animal shelter to keep a dog or a cat?

I know from experience that even in reputable animal shelters with caring staff and volunteers–where dogs are exercised daily and receive play time and cats receive daily cuddling and kind words–some cats who are highly “adoptable” when they enter the shelter become so stressed that they start to bite or swat at everyone. So they just sit in their cage or colony play area with no hope of adoption. Many healthy and friendly dogs become depressed or start to exhibit frantic behaviors, such as throwing themselves against cage walls, spinning madly in place, or becoming aggressive. And what if–despite excellent cleaning and vaccination protocols and a full-time medical staff–you have an outbreak of parvovirus or bordatella in a kennel of “adoptable” dogs? They either have to be quarantined for 10 days or-when every foster home is full and there is nowhere for the animals to be placed-euthanized.

I’ve seen several recent episodes at different “open-admission” animal shelters where they asked the public to wait to turn animals in to the shelter so that they could quarantine an entire room or just wait until there was an open cage available. Inevitably, this leads to an increase in the number of cats who are dumped in the parking lot (or worse), and it’s not unusual to find a dog tied to the shelter door in the early morning.

Even when an animal shelter is doing everything that it can to adopt out animals and provide excellent physical and psychological care, it still has to face the difficult reality: Some animals must be euthanized in order to keep others from being harmed or abandoned on the street. But volunteers may quit or even start a public campaign to denounce the shelter if it euthanizes a long-time resident, or they may insist that they’ll pay to keep the one dog or cat at a boarding facility since all adoption efforts have failed. Have you found yourself in that role? Did insisting on “life” for that one dog or cat actually result in prolonged suffering for that animal or for other animals who died alone on the streets because the shelter was too full to accept them?

The overpopulation problem in animal shelters occurs because some people still buy animals from pet shops and breeders and because many people refuse to spay or neuter and insist on breeding animals. Until we end breeder and pet-store sales of animals and until spaying and neutering brings the number of homeless and unwanted animals down, the decisions that animal shelters face will continue to be difficult. Ethics demand that animal shelters keep their doors open to all animals in need–even if it means saying goodbye to some friends we’ve grown to love during their months in the shelter. I believe that the growing demands on open-admission animal shelters to play word games about their euthanasia policies is a challenge to shelters to act in the real interests of animals.

What do you think? Do you agree?

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    Dr Barry Kipperman says...

    January 5th, 2009, 4:17 pm

    You raise some very interesting and thought-provoking questions. In particular,is a life for a dog limited to cage/run confinement with brief walks, acceptable? We often rationalize the answer in the affirmative, as any life seems better than the alternative of death. Animal hospitals often keep small groups of cats to donate blood as needed,raising similar issues.
    I think its certainly incumbent upon us morally to periodically examine the impact of confinement on the animals quality of life, and the animals’ age and potential for adoption in the future.
    Good piece!

    Laura says...

    January 5th, 2009, 5:37 pm

    Hi Scott,

    I agree with you. I would think it maddening for an animal, who is used to being a companion, to find him or herself locked in a cage for months, or longer. It’s just not healthy for them. And while euthanizing an animal is never the best choice, it is sometimes the only choice. I must add, I find it infuriatiing that people just don’t get this issue! Spay and neuter is a no-brainer, and so is NOT buying from breeders or pet stores. We should have progressed way past the animal over-population problem by now.

    Diana Covington says...

    January 5th, 2009, 11:52 pm

    Hello, I hear all that you are saying. Such a heartwrenching subject, no doubt. My take on it is this: I believe that we as human beings are here to be custodians of our animal friends, much like we are to be guides and parents to our children. As we would not euthanize our children (at least most of us wouldn’t) when the going gets tough, it should be unthinkable to employ euthanazia toward animals as a solution for any reason except to assist the sick or advanced in age.
    The problem we are dealing with is not animals, it is people. It is people that choose to ignore the information that is given to them. It is people who choose ignorance over compassion, and who are therefore incapable of love. I am convinced that anyone who loves their pet would not give it up for any reason, least of all because of a landlord or because they’re going to have a baby–these are excuses we hear so often.
    People, and I mean the public in general, from K-12 on up need to be educated in the loving care of animals; no shouting, hitting, and always being loyal to them and understanding them. We would have better communities, and fewer animals in shelters.
    What about the overpopulation now? What happens in a war when many soldiers are wounded and they need a place to recover? Warehouses, or any building that can be found are turned into hospitals for them. We are in a war–a war to care for something precious and dear–these vessels of love, our animals. Reach out into the communities and find extra shelter in the form of unused buildings or people’s homes for those that need it, but don’t euthanize them. Love them and keep believing their special person will come for them. They deserve it so much more than most of us can even imagine. Thank you.

    kerry says...

    January 6th, 2009, 1:21 pm

    I think that if shelters are really nice, and the animals in them are comfortable and get lots of attention, then it is ok to keep the animals for months. I have adopted animals (both dogs and cats) who have been in these kinds of shelters for months, and they have adjusted wonderfully. I have also adopted from shelters that are overcrowded, and underfunded where the animals just sit in tiny cages, ignored for months, and no amount of love can reverse the damage. I like to think that death is not such a horrible thing. I like to think that it is just a transition of losing our physical bodies and evolving into another dimension. If this is true, then death certainly is preferable to a hopeless life of pain and loneliness.

    Scott says...

    January 6th, 2009, 2:42 pm

    Diana,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. It is a very heart-wrenching problem with no perfect solutions that can be implemented by caring people today.

    Well-intentioned people often raise the “homeless people aren’t euthanized” argument, and you offer a twist on that by mentioning children. While dogs, cats, and humans (adults or children) are all sentient beings, the societal issues that lead to their suffering and the options to help them are very different. If a child (or a homeless adult) were out on a freeway, traffic would stop and emergency personnel would be summoned; we know that isn’t the case for dogs or cats who are on the streets (perhaps after being turned away from a so-called “no kill” shelter).

    Dogs and cats are bred and sold for profit and discarded on a whim. That isn’t the case for children. Dogs and cats need lifetime care and can never be truly independent (no domestic animal really can, unlike the wonderful animals who evolved naturally). Homeless people and even children can seek help from others, and can act independently to care for themselves in a manner that domestic canines and felines can not.

    You are absolutely correct that every avenue has to be explored, and every ramification of the various options considered. “Unused buildings” represents an alarming option, even discounting the need for proper ventilation, caging, etc that is necessary to humanely care for large numbers of dogs and cats. First, the very problem with warehousing animals (so common in turn-away shelters, and hoarder situations, and even veterinary hospitals as Dr. Kipperman notes) is exactly the point of my post; if animals are not being adopted, how long is it fair to them to keep them in an institutional setting? In a shelter that receives 10,000 dogs and cats a year and has a high-volume adoption program, it is still a challenge to provide daily walks for dogs and “cuddling” time for cats even with an aggressive volunteer recruitment and training program. One doesn’t solve that challenge by obtaining more space. Foster programs are another vital component to a well-run shelter, but one can only insure training and follow-up to so many foster homes (one doesn’t want unweaned unaltered animals disappearing!).

    Some 8 million dogs and cats will enter the U.S. shelter system this year; if we obtained buildings, full-time staff, an army of volunteers, and the funds to care for just the 4 million or so who will be euthanized in 2009 we would surpass the budgets of all animal rights groups combined, which would also of course mean no work on ending vivisection, or the cruel fur trade, or freeing elephants and other animals from circuses, or (more to the point!) spaying and neutering. And what of the 4 million coming in 2010? It takes us back to the important point of how long we can hold those animals humanely. If the lovely dog who can’t live with children, hates other dogs and cats, and is approaching “senior” age is starting to be severely depressed despite extra walks and playtime, what can be done as more animals wait for access to the safety of the shelter where he is taking up a cage? (I’m thinking now of Sarge, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever that I knew and loved and euthanized in a shelter long ago). The solution is to end breeding and sale of cats and dogs; but until we reach that point those who care for thousands and thousands of animals a year will have to consider euthanasia as the most humane option for some. Surely you agree when you consider all the factors above? It is heart-wrenching indeed!

    Patty Bowers says...

    January 8th, 2009, 12:18 pm

    We need Federal funding for Spay and Neuter programs!
    HOW can we go about getting this?

    catherine says...

    January 9th, 2009, 1:31 pm

    You do raise some interesting points. I myself volunteered at a shelter and witnessed the horrible decisions staff had to make such as which animals were adoptable and which just weren’t going to get adopted. People dont realize the importance of spay and neutur, it should be mandatory in every state.

    denise payne says...

    January 9th, 2009, 1:38 pm

    Okay, well I think some of the problem lays with veterinarians. I love my vet as she is a very good advocate on spaying and nuetering. She has a policy set forth in her office. All new patients must be checked by bloodwork for worms and such but also that within a year of becoming a patient, the animal must be spayed or neutered. She offers it at a substantial discount and it helps keep the population down. If you dont like it, basically dont come to her but she is so cheap you cant help but save money.
    We got our dog from a shelter. Little did I know that she was due to be “put to sleep” 2 days from the date we got her. She was a loving dog but had been in the shelter for over 5 months. I hate the thought of the poor creatures for which we are the only lead to speak for them being put through this, but on the flip side, if we never downsized the population, how would we ever make progress. 2 less dogs living in the shelter means room for 2 more to get off the street and so on. It is a harsh reality, kind of like china’s population control. It has to start somewhere and be maintained in order for any progress to be made (on the flip side I dont entirely agree with china’s policy on babies but was using it as a example for the situation at hand).
    So thought ending, less animals suffering in shelters for long periods of time means less suffering of animals on the streets. Lets not forget they have feelings too.

    Kitty A says...

    January 9th, 2009, 4:21 pm

    I do not think it is bad to euthanize animals if the proceedure is done in a caring respectful manor. As the gaurdian of up to 12 cats of varing ages, I have had to euthanize some of my friends. Some as they staggered into death from old age and kidney failure, one who was healthy and playful except for a huge ozing cancer on her belly. I euthanized a rabbit who had a bladder stone. I didn’t have the money to treat.The veterinarians I brought my pets to said I did the right thing. Life is harsh to those of us who have tender hearts. But presently my local shelter is turning away cats because they are over capacity. where do the turned away cats go? To the streets? Or are they simply left in a house or apartment to starve to death, trembling in fear and wondering where a kind human is? We have stopped horse slaughter in the United States, but now the terrified creatures are forced into longer and more horrendous trips to their deaths. That is off the subject, but shows how a well meaning idea sometimes bring greater suffering. Unwanted animals should be euthanized rather than suffer.

    Pamela says...

    January 9th, 2009, 10:13 pm

    It is a terrible trade off. I truly agree that spay and neuter programs need more funding, but there needs to be better communication: why don’t people spay and neuter their animals? It isn’t always the cost alone.

    There needs to be a program that assists people in catching and transporting their animal(s). It is difficult enought to catch and put that loving companion feline in a carrier when you are able-bodied, but almost impossible if you are sick and disabled. And what about transport to and from the vetrinarian? If you don’t have a car, don’t drive or aren’t able to, it is an insurmountable obstacle. I support funding for spay and neuter, but there needs to be a catch and transport program alongside to keep the disabled and elderly from being victimized along with their pets.

    Caitlynn J. McNelly says...

    January 9th, 2009, 11:39 pm

    You raise a good point. No-one wants to see an animal put down. Unless that animal is old and/or suffering, let’s face it, there is nothing “humane” about killing. I think, the problem wholly boils down to making and enforcing laws about overpopulation. Having said that, there SHOULD be LAWS introduced to MANDATE spaying & neutering. People have had plenty of time to UNDERSTAND what Breeding and overpopulating of Pets are doing to the Animals. If they refuse to co-operate-they should have to pay a HUGE FINE. After all, we are talking about lives. We get Fined if we Speed or don’t pay our Taxes, don’t we? No-One asks, “Did you not understand”? You still have to obey the law for the greater good, agree with it or not. Bottom line, the focus now NEEDS to be on getting laws passed. (Most “Breeders” want the money and no amount of “education” will stop making them greedy) By making it illegal, paying a fine, and having a criminal record, THAT might have an Impact. It also might HELP to “BAN” all of these Dog Shows. This only gives them an “Excuse” to keep having puppies!

    Anna Chott says...

    January 10th, 2009, 12:43 am

    I’ve volunteered at an animal shelter for years, and I find that most of the situations of our cats and dogs are the opposite of some mentioned above. Many of the cats (and maybe dogs too, but I mostly work with the cats) come in with fleas, sores, bad temperaments, and so on. And with veterinary care and the attention of the staff and volunteers, they always improve drastically.
    There was one cat in particular, named Daniel, who came in covered in fleas and scabs from scratching the fleas. He spent weeks hiding under the bed in his cage, not coming out except to eat and drink. And now he gets along perfectly with the other cats and is one of the sweetest cats ever!
    I don’t think the shelter I volunteer at would ever turn away a cat, and they would only euthanize them if the vet recommended it. When we run out of room we set up cages in the lounge, or some of the workers may take home a cat. Maybe not all shelters are like this, but I really don’t think they are all that terrible for animals to live at for long periods of time.

    Sheila says...

    January 10th, 2009, 1:07 am

    Unfortunately, prominent people such as Vice-President Elect Biden chose to buy a dog from a breeder. This, of course , sets a bad example for our country. Hopefully, President Obama will not make the same mistake.

    Jan says...

    January 11th, 2009, 8:10 am

    Dearr Scott,
    Your points are very salient and need to be addressed as vigorously as we pursue ant-factory farming efforts. Breeding is little more than factory farming for companion animals.
    I see the spay and neuter programs and a moratorium on pet stores and breeders as the only sane and effective solution to control the end product of animal overpopulations, suffering, and abandonment. Breeding is particularly heinous as it is a deliberate act of profiteering on the backs of animlas who ultimately suffer as result of overpopulation. Breeders are monsters that promote breeds as better than a naturally interbred dog. Remind us of any theories on the ” superior race”?
    Jan

    Tina Max says...

    January 11th, 2009, 11:06 am

    I agree with Patty, the federal/state/city/town governments need to be more financially supportive of shelters. Even when times are good, most funds need to be raised by volunteers, and there is only so much money that can be raised by this process. Government wastes sooo much money on trivial matters and perkes, when these funds could be used by the shelters. I think we need to apply more pressure. Currently we are in a bad economic situation, but again, even when times were good, a pittance if that, was geared toward the homeless animal shelters. I say get them to donate funds and then at least more of the animals could remain alive.

    Pamela Coburn says...

    January 12th, 2009, 3:57 pm

    I have been a cat foster mom for a local humane group for the past two years and I also help at our spay/neuter clinics weekly. I see so many people who love their animals who haven’t been able to afford to spay/neuter and our local shelter has no low cost program to help the community. The many local humane groups do what they can but it’s never enough and there are very few veterinarians that step up to help. I think if we could get more Veterinarians and Technicians to volunteer even once or twice a year we could do so much more. We also need more people to foster we can only save those animals we have fosters for.

    Ami says...

    January 13th, 2009, 10:46 pm

    all this makes me want to become a veterinarian just so I can volunteer my time to spay and neuter animals that would otherwise go without being fixed. What we really need is federal funding for animal shelters to spay and neuter animals when they recieve them.

    Scott says...

    January 17th, 2009, 9:27 am

    It would make sense of course to have those who profit from our relationships with canines and felines to help pay for spay-neuter. A tax on sale of dog and cat food would generate substantial sums. The various “shelter assistance” programs of the food manufacturers are really just marketing for their own products and don’t help animals much at all. But passing a tax at the federal level is virtually hopeless. A more realistic approach is to get county or state officials to add a surcharge of $2 or more to rabies vaccinations and/or license fees with the income restricted to spay-neuter programs for low-income families and homeless cats. See HelpingAnimals.com for info on how to pass legislation in your area!

    May says...

    January 20th, 2009, 9:53 am

    I am a volunteer for the Bay County Animal Control facility in Panama City, FL. Recently, an Irish Wolfhound was given up (the man wept) because the pregnant wife wanted her dog and not Bella. Bella was there nearly two months. She was so severely traumatized that she huddled in a corner, trembling all day long. When walked by volunteers, she wouldn’t stop trembling. A week ago, she backed one of the staff into a corner.

    It looked bad for Bella, whom we were trying desperately to place into foster care with a rescue. Last Saturday a canine behaviorist who is a volunteer, took her out for the day. Bella came to visit us at Pet Supermarket and she was wonderful…confident, curious, happy. We thought we had a place for her, and they went to visit, but the woman wasn’t home. When the volunteer took her back up to BCAC, someone who rescues large dogs (mastiffs) was waiting for her.

    Today, Bella should be at her new home in Louisiana.

    But surely, had she not been adopted she would have had her spirit broken and her psyche ruined. She would have ended up euthanized. And that would have been better for her.

    I am trying to place a little pit bull/Boston mix who ADORES children. He is obedient and exuberant and would make an excellent therapy dog – even a friend for a disabled child. He is running out of time and no one wants him because he’s between 2-4. What a sadness that no one sees the golden heart under that plain, rather homely facade.

    Sharon S. says...

    March 9th, 2009, 11:07 pm

    What you say in your article is very true and very sad.

    nancy says...

    December 27th, 2010, 8:12 pm

    I never looked at it that way before. It’s sad that sometimes euthanization is the best option. I do wonder though if some of those animals that looked like they were going mad would have adjusted to shelter life with more time. The real solution, of course, is spaying/neutering and NO MORE BREEDERS!

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