The Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, published last December fills a huge void in the animal welfare community. The first comprehensive report of its kind, which Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, director of Veterinary Medical Services, helped author and edit, is centered on meeting animals’ needs given the vastly changed nature of animal sheltering in the last decade.

And now, the Guidelines have been endorsed by a very important collection of animal welfare groups, including The National Federation of Humane Societies, The Society of Animal Welfare Administrators, The National Animal Control Association, The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and The Humane Society of the United States. These groups have authored a foreword to the document in which they “embrace the spirit and intent of the Guidelines, both to raise the standard of animal care throughout our industry and to create a road map that will aid organizations with on-going self assessment and improvement”.

Shelter Guidelines sets up performance-based principles based on the Five Freedoms  required for good welfare. It is intended as a positive tool for shelters and communities to review animal care, identify areas that need improvement, allocate resources, and implement solutions so welfare is optimized, euthanasia is minimized, and suffering is prevented.

A key element is the understanding that each shelter is unique, ranging from small home-based operations to large-scale municipal facilities that have different challenges, different resources and different ways to meet animals’ needs.

Even something as simple as proper cage size can vary, says Smith-Blackmore. “A shelter’s cages may be quite small – just big enough for a dog to stand up, move around and lie down. If the dog only spends from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. in the cage but the rest of the time is out in a play group that may be acceptable. But if the dog never leaves that cage it’s completely unacceptable; you need to find a way to bring in enrichment and social companionship and create positive experiences for the dog whether it’s indoors or outdoors.”

Smith-Blackmore hopes all shelters will use Shelter Guidelines as a tool for self- reflection to evaluate what they’re doing, and how they might do better. In addition, as more and more states look at legislation or regulation of shelters, she sees the document as a useful reference.

The League, too, has been an early beneficiary of the research. Among the enhancements that have resulted: moving easy-to-place cats more quickly through the adoption process, thus decreasing the average length of stay for adopted cats by half; and the creation of double cages to provide much more space, privacy, and separation of litter from food and sleeping areas, which decrease stress, a particular benefit for shy cats who need extra TLC.

Concludes Smith-Blackmore, “What I think we’ve accomplished in the guidelines was to stimulate ideas so shelters can figure out what’s best for them with the end result of doing what’s right for the animals.”