Best Friends Blog

California Sheltering Report recommendations

This is the third in our series of posts diving into the details of the California Sheltering Report. The report stands to have some far-reaching implications on shelter policies not just for California, but also for the entire nation. Our goal with this series is to simply highlight different pieces of the report. We will be providing a full summary with our recommendations and position prior to the deadline for providing feedback to the group responsible for delivering the final recommendations to the California governor.

Here are links to part one and part two of the blog posts in this series.

This is pretty dry stuff, but the fact that shelter policy in our most populous state is being evaluated based on lifesaving effectiveness should be enough to flavor the conversation with excitement.

In this installment, I’d like to touch on two important recommendations by the stakeholders group.

The first recommendation is for an appointment-based owner-surrender shelter policy. Analysis of the data revealed that 30 percent of the California shelter population is the result of owner surrenders. Appointment-based surrender, which has been employed to great benefit in the no-kill community of Reno, Nevada, and elsewhere, addresses two critical issues. First, it allows shelter staff to have a conversation with the owner regarding the reason they want to give up their pet. Experience shows that 25 to 30 percent of the time, the reason for surrender is a minor issue that can be easily sorted out by a surrender coordinator. Sometimes it’s a financial problem – vet costs, pet food or fence repair that can be easily addressed. Sometimes it’s a question of arranging training or behavior-management support.

The other shelter management issue that appointments address is to moderate the number of animals entering the shelter on a given day to better accord with available cage space so that an unforeseen rush doesn’t increase pressure to kill an animal for space considerations.

Despite the common sense nature of this owner-surrender recommendation, there will be those in opposition, so get ready to hear cries of alarm and red herrings, such as, “This will encourage pet abandonment.” Well, it hasn’t had that effect where it is employed, and there is no reason to expect it in California.

One finding that I believe will be more controversial is the white paper’s recommendations with regard to shelter hold times for stray dogs and cats who don’t have an owner ID either in the form of a tag or a microchip.

The Hayden Law extended hold times for pets to four to six days, depending on the circumstances within a particular shelter. The additional hold times have been found to be reimbursable, unfunded mandates and are one of the items that have been frequently suspended for budget considerations as they are now. Extended hold times have been regarded as critical to boosting return-to-owner (RTO) rates and saving more lives.

The analysis of 15 years of shelter data revealed some surprising RTO stats. For cats, RTO rates in California have been a consistently dismal 2 percent. That means that for every 100 stray cats, with presumed owners, only two of those 100 cats are claimed by an owner who searched the shelter. There is no data related to cat owner behavior that might provide a reasonable explanation for this other than that people don’t care about their cats, which I know is not true.

The truth is that a reasonable explanation relates to a combination of cat and cat owner behavior. If a cat is allowed outdoors, it is not uncommon for him or her to go missing for a day or two and then show up again. So, a cat’s person might not get alarmed for a few days and then might just start by looking around the neighborhood and putting up signs. There is a good chance that they don’t even know where the local shelter is.

As for cats who are not allowed to roam, sneaking out an open door can be a frightening experience. This type of cat usually goes to ground pretty quickly and simply hides in the nearest available nook, cranny, or crawl space. The concerned owner is likely to visit the shelter, post signs and do all the right things as the cat remains in hiding with possible peekaboo appearances after dark and before sunrise until hunger and/or thirst drives them to search for food. When they do emerge, a well-meaning neighbor will take the kitty to the shelter, but the owner has already done the shelter visit. And so it goes.

The recommendation that the stakeholders offer is understandable but surprising. Given that only 2 percent of stray cats are returned to owner via the shelter, the stakeholders suggest that cats who arrive in the shelter without identification be made immediately available for adoption, essentially eliminating mandatory hold times for strays with no ID.

The picture for dogs is less grim, but not particularly encouraging. RTO for dogs rose just 3 percent over the 15 years following enactment of Hayden, from 16 to 19 percent, but the report recommends the same remedy: Dogs arriving with no ID could likewise be offered for immediate adoption or placement with rescue. The same goes for puppies who arrive in groups of three or more from the same address.

This proposed “zero” tolerance for lack of identification on a pet dog means that a cute young mutt, who normally wears an ID tag, but slips a collar or escapes from a bathing session with the kids, or any one of numerous imaginable scenarios, might well lose his family.

These “get them out the door ASAP” ideas are intended to eliminate some of the issues that cost lives and drive up shelter costs. In some communities, shelter overcrowding is a legitimate concern. Extended shelter stays expose animals to diseases and increase stress. More time in the shelter also costs shelters money, which is in short supply, and, it is reasoned, could be better used to focus staff time on adoption and other proactive lifesaving duties.

Personally, I think this will not fly with the public or their elected representatives as it will be easy to portray such measures as punitive to the public who are not breaking any laws in not chipping a pet. Imagine, for example, an owner of three indoor-only cats. The well-meaning owner believes the cats to be safe at home, so none of the cats are microchipped or collared with ID tags. One of the cats darts out the front door one day, and is taken to the shelter by a Good Samaritan who finds the friendly kitty in their front yard. The cat has no ID, but is highly adoptable and immediately put into the adoption area of the shelter. Before the owner has had a chance to find their pet, a new family takes the cat home. It is easy to portray this as disproportionate punishment for an owner who neglected to microchip.

It also cuts across one of the few shelter activities that the public likely expects and supports. It is a legitimate “sheltering” activity, and in our idealized no-kill future, where animals are not being killed in shelters to make room for the next wave of unfortunate strays, we will want animal shelters to be temporary safe havens for homeless pets in need without the concern that an otherwise well-meaning, loving owner will lose their pet if they are not up to snuff on all of their obligations.

The proposals are intended to empower communities committed to no-kill to expedite adoptions. Public buy-in is another matter.

Response to this from the rescue community has been largely positive. However, I think the pet-loving public will view these hold-time recommendations through a different set of lenses.

What do you think? Should hold times be reduced as recommended in the report? We’d love to hear your thoughts, and any stories you may have from working in the field. Leave them below in the comments.

Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • “shelters can become very crowded very quickly.”
    Yes indeedy…they can certainly do that.
    Because we have a staggering overpopulation of homeless and unwanted animals together with a staggering overpopulation of humans who want young cute undamaged ones.
    With all this moving to ‘reduce intake’ in order to ‘stop the killing’ as opposed to admitting that as it stands, ‘saving them all’ is a cruel evil joke, I’m surprised all you folks have not moved to just do away with the shelter system altogether and leave the animals on the streets.
    Which has been suggested many times…
    That would certainly put an end to shelter killing.

    • The futility of even commenting on this issue as it stands now becomes more and more apparent.
      The fundamentalists have moved into the building and are not easily dislodged.
      In the end, though, the math will win this argument.
      The math always wins.
      Until we stop producing cats & dogs at a geometric rate , the ratio of animal to human will remain astronomically disproportionate.
      And we will find that there is no solution.
      The fact that only a few more than 50% of American households even have a cat or dog is only just another blip in the dangling sword.
      And as always, the animals will lose.
      Because of avarice and thoughtlessness and stupidity and carelessness and selfishness and ego and our collective lack of will to create any meaningful animal protection legislation.
      But it is so much easier …and so much more dramatic…to say
      Stop The Killing.

  • Brent Toellner

    Shelters that put an emphasis on saving lives put a huge emphasis on decreasing length of stay. Without reducing length of stay, shelters can become very crowded very quickly.

    Research from my own shelter (which mirrors what is found in the California study) that 80% of RTOs are completed after 3 days. The other 20% go from 4-30 days at our shelter. And the reality is, when animals come in with no form of identification, the odds of them being reunited are already very low. And that decrease exponentially if they are found quickly.

    While it would be great for shelters in all cases to give more time for owners to be reunited with their pets, this runs counter to the proven connection between decreasing length of stay and improving life-saving.

    I personally would support a longer hold period (say, 5-6 days) for animals with some form of identification and less of one (3 days) for animals without any form of ID. Statistically this would have the optimal return on high RTOs and decreased Length of Stay.

    At some point as an animal welfare community we need to determine if our goal is to aid lifesaving, or to prevent high-kill shelters from having the ability to kill. Because in a situation like this, what helps the shelter trying to save lives, also makes it easier for a regressive shelter to end them. But we also need to understand, by making it harder on regressive shelters, we’re also making it harder on those trying to save lives also.

    • Julieveggie

      Let’s say Brent gets his way & all the killing in shelters stopped today. What are the consequences? If all the shelters stopped killing today, every shelter would become soon over capacity and would have no choice but to stop accepting animals. Then the public would release millions of unaltered animals onto the street to produce more unwanted animals & suffer a slow death like you see in other countries that have a huge stray problem. These countries handle the stray problem by poisoning the animals or culling. Doesn’t sound like a better plan to me?

  • Mary McGuckian

    No they shouldn’t reduce hold times. I realize that it would decrease the exposure to disease – but it is hard enough to network & find owners/fosters/adopters/rescues for a dog or cat in 4 days – 1 day would pretty much be a death sentence for dogs and cats in our high kill shelters

  • “Experience shows that 25 to 30 percent of the time, the reason for
    surrender is a minor issue that can be easily sorted out by a surrender
    Is there actual data on this presumption?

    “vet costs, pet food or fence repair can be easily addressed”?
    Easily addressed with what? Cash? Lots of it on a regular basis?
    Have any of you ever been poor?

    “There is no data related to cat owner behavior that might provide a
    reasonable explanation for this other than that people don’t care about
    their cats, which I know is not true.”
    If this is not true, why are there millions and millions of free-roaming and dumped cats everywhere everywhere everywhere?

    If people cared about their cats we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    And in terms of the positive response from the rescue community?
    There is no rescue community anymore.
    Just a warring bickering group of factions now that fundamentalism has discovered the animal world.
    I am so unbelievably disappointed in this.

  • Julieveggie

    Shelters closing the door on tame house cats in need is not a step forward in sheltering. In a nut shell is that Hyden’s law is not financially sustainable as it currently stands. The shelter must reduce shelter intakes for cats to reduce spending that means abandoning tame cats onto the streets. The purpose of the white paper was to identify the fiscal strengths and weaknesses of California’s Hayden Law, and to make recommendations that might help the legislation become economically sustainable. The paper doesn’t outline a “new and improved” model of animal sheltering–it simply indicates that if Hayden Law wishes to escape the possible future repeal of some of its provisions, California shelters had better find ways of become financially sustainable, and that one way to manage that might be to limit their intake of animals. The paper states that “up to a third of shelter intake comes from owners surrendering their pets,” and that by implementing an “appointment-based” intake system, or refusing to accept certain animals at all–or both–shelters can control up to a third of their admissions. The recommendation isn’t about revamping an “old guard” method of sheltering, it’s about decreasing intake. After all, the recommendation to “schedule” owner-surrenders is outlined in the “Intake Reduction” section of the paper.

  • Susan Taney

    Since December 2010, over 6,000 dogs have been reunited with their families with assistance from Lost Dogs Illinois. Many of these dogs did not have an ID tag or microchip BUT they were reunited. Many times it was several days before an owner found his/her dog. Most dogs owners are not aware of where their animal control and/or stray holding facility is located. Even in some large cities or counties, there are several facilities located so a person would have to take a whole day off from work to check each facility so see if their dog is there. That could go for many days. Many don’t have transportation and there are language barriers. How is someone to get their dog back if a zero tolerance policy is implemented? Just one more thought – if they did implement a zero tolerance policy, will they implement a law that if an owner of a lost dog finds their dog in a rescue/shelter or has been adopted out, they would have a grace period to get their dog back. Susan Taney Director/Lost Dogs Illinois. Co-director Lost Dogs Of America

  • Kathy Pobloskie

    At Lost Dogs of Wisconsin we have already helped reunite over 1000 dogs with their owners in 2013. We see every case scenario imaginable. Some of these dogs have slipped their collar, or slipped out of a slip lead at a vet, groomer, or boarding facility. MANY times microchips are missed at shelters, usually due to human error: scanning too fast, weak batteries or scanning near or on a metal surface. The lost pet system in America is broken. Until it is fixed I could never support a change of legislation that would reduce holding times. Shelters are supposed to be places that facilitate reunions with families – not tear families apart.
    Kathy Pobloskie
    Director, Lost Dogs of Wisconsin
    Co-director, Lost Dogs of America

  • Audrey Rowland

    At our local shelter, all dogs adopted out are microchipped, not sure about cats. Perhaps greater emphasis could be put on this for owners so they will be aware of the consequences if there pet gets out. I would hate to lose one of my pets, but I would definitely prefer to see them adopted by another loving home instead of euthanized.

    • jaspurranddude

      I totally agree with you! Some shelters are now microchipping all animals before they are adopted. I personally think that is a great policy. I volunteer at our local AC and I would much rather see the strays coming in get adopted quickly rather than pts for lack of space. (which doesn’t happen much, but it does happen!)

  • ShelterMe

    I agree that the public is likely to put up a strong argument to a reduction of the hold time, particularly for cats for the reasons you stated in your blog. But as a former businesswoman familiar with budgetary constraints, I am painfully familiar with the pressures felt by shelters looking to be all to all. Therefore, I think it is incumbent upon all of us in the rescue community to continue to focus on educating the public about microchipping not just for dogs, but for cats, as well. And then perhaps a compromise can be reached – the money saved just from one extra day’s hold time can then be spent on some sort of info dissemination project, and then perhaps a year or two from now, the RTO rates can be reassessed to see if a marriage of both the public’s and shelters’ needs is moving both in the right direction.

  • Karla

    That scares me, of course the hold times shouldn’t be reduced. Give people a chance!