Longer Term Shelter Animals

One of the “side effects” of the movement toward “No Kill” sheltering in the United States has been longer stays within the shelter environment for homeless animals. While many of the most adoptable (cute, fuzzy, young) still stay for relatively short periods, there are many who wait months, sometimes even years before finding a forever home in a family’s life.

A few of these animals adapt quite well into the shelter environment. But many more can develop behavioral issues for no other reason than having been in a shelter for too long. “Kennel Crazy” is a well-known term for dogs that continually pace or run in circles in their small kennels or have other changes in behavior because of the stress felt and no positive way to release it. Lack of mental and physical stimulation seem to be main contributors to this stress.

The problem has been particularly prevalent in old public shelters. These facilities were not built nor designed for prolonged stays. In the days of the “Pound,” animals were given their five or six days for owners to reclaim them, or if the shelter was particularly progressive, a small number of animals were selected as “adoptable” and given some extra time to find a home. But the kennels were small, with no outside space for exercise or play. There were no isolation areas for new shelter animals, exposing the general population to whatever contagious disease the new comers might have. It was also rare for public shelters to have volunteers due to distrust and the “necessities” of limited sheltering time.

With a growing interest by a caring public to do better for homeless companion animals and the influence of the “No Kill” movement, the last decade of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st century, things started to change for many public and private shelters. While activities and services changed and improved, such as expanded adoption marketing, increased number of volunteer rescue groups and foster families, there is still one component that will take longer to change, that of the shelter facility itself.

More shelters are working isolation rooms and/or space into their buildings to help reduce the spread of disease in the general shelter population. Shelters are including larger kennels, free-roaming space and rooms for cats, outdoor play and socialization areas for dogs, get acquainted rooms where quiet bonding time can occur between shelter animal and potential adopter, all are now being considered as new shelters are built or remodeled.

Most importantly, shelters are reaching out to grow their volunteer corps to provide needed ongoing socialization and play time to shelter animals, to provide off-site satellite adoption events at parking lots and places of business, to provide foster family services for special needs animals (medical or behavioral).

The volunteer component is perhaps the most important asset for long-term shelter animals. It does not help to just transfer a long-termer from one shelter to another, hoping that a change of scenery will ease the stress they feel. It may even make the sense of hopelessness worse for these animals. The key is offering out of shelter time in open space, or in foster and other cageless environments. It is play time with humans, toys, and other animals.

Here at WAIF, we are witnessing the construction of a new shelter, with all of the above components of isolation space, socialization and play areas, free-roaming cat rooms, even six acres of shaded dog walking trails. But it is the continued work of tireless volunteers that has and will bring reduction of stress for the small but important group of longer-term shelter animals as they wait for their adoptive family to find them.

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