Homeless animals are no longer viewed as a public nuisance to be warehoused in substandard facilities and disposed of as quickly
and quietly as possible. Just as there has been a shift in the role companion animals play in the lives of people, the way
society views homeless animals and the care they should receive in shelters has also shifted. Increasingly, the trend across
the United States is to design shelters as friendly and inviting community centers where the public can go to not only relinquish
or adopt pets but also to receive counseling on responsible pet ownership and animal behavior problems and to receive services
ranging from low-cost, elective spay or neuter surgeries to comprehensive veterinary care.
To effectively satisfy the rising demand for better preventive healthcare programs and veterinary services for shelter animals,
veterinarians must understand the mission and goal of animal shelters and the resources available to them. Veterinarians also
need to recognize that practicing veterinary medicine in a shelter can vary substantially from traditional small-animal private
practice. Failure to appreciate these points can lead to frustration and resentment by both the shelter workers and veterinarians,
which can lead to a breakdown of communication and may ultimately result in the shelter animals not receiving appropriate
and humane care.
My goal with this article is to outline what practitioners need to know about animal shelters to reduce these misunderstandings
and provide shelter animals with the best care possible.
HISTORY OF ANIMAL SHELTERS
Animal shelters evolved from pounds, which were used in colonial towns to round up and hold wandering livestock that could
be redeemed from the poundmaster for a fee. Because an economic value was placed on these animals, they were often reclaimed.
When the system began to be used to impound wandering dogs and cats, these animals were often killed because little monetary
value was placed on them.1
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded in 1866 as the first animal welfare organization
in the United States. The organization's focus was on the mistreatment of horses, not dogs and cats. Several other humane
organizations were founded soon after in major cities, but they were not, and still are not, affiliated with each other. The
concept of animal control and shelters slowly took hold, and cities began issuing dog licenses as a source of funding for
these programs. However, the shelter's primary role was not to provide humane care and treatment of the animals but to provide
public safety and to protect private property rights. In 1874, the Women's Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA in Philadelphia
became the first organization to focus on the humane treatment of shelter animals.1
Until the late 1970s, the veterinary community had little input into the management policies of shelters. Instead of focusing
on providing humane veterinary care and treatment to the animals, the energies of many shelters revolved around providing
a humane death for the many animals that were not reclaimed or adopted. The euthanasia methods used included clubbing, drowning,
electrocution, decompression chambers, and carbon monoxide poisoning, all of which have been considered either quick or humane
at various points in time.1
In the late 1970s, enough concern about the quality of life offered to shelter animals was raised that veterinary input was
sought to provide effective programs of preventive care and treatment. In 1989, Current Veterinary Therapy X published one of the first articles in a veterinary publication regarding the care of shelter animals.2
ANIMAL SHELTERS TODAY
The ASPCA National Outreach department estimates that more than 5,000 animal shelters exist in the United States. However,
no one knows for sure since there is no federal system to define or regulate shelters. Humane societies and SPCAs are not
affiliated with the national ASPCA or the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Although some states regulate animal
shelters, the guidelines for animal care may be rudimentary at best.