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What and How to Feed Shelter Animals

ShelterSpeak: What and how do you feed your shelter animals?

ShelterSpeak: What and how do you feed your shelter animals?

Jim Tedford, executive director
Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County, Fairport, New York

We feed all dogs and cats premium pet foods designed to meet their specific needs. For example, puppies and kittens get food that is specifically formulated for growing animals. We generally feed dry food, but will mix it with premium canned foods if necessary (for finicky eaters). Very young or very old animals with either no teeth or with dental problems are given food of a consistency appropriate to their needs.

Historically, shelters were more concerned with quantity than with the quality of their food. Animals were typically not held long enough for quality to make a huge difference. But now, not only are animals often housed for longer periods of time, but we have also found that the quality of food can make an almost immediate difference. We have also discovered that feeding animals higher quality, more digestible foods results in a reduction in the volume of fecal matter—a fact particularly important to people who work in the kennels!

Belinda Lewis, director
Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control, Fort Wayne, Indiana

So many government shelters that I go into have the equivalent of "Uncle Mike's" brand sitting on their feed room floors. When we ask why, the staff frequently explains that since their shelter is a government agency, their purchasing department tells them they have to go with the lowest bidder. Hogwash! When it is time to put out bids, a government department needs to write a specification that will provide them with an adequate nutritional feed to meet their shelter's needs. If the shelter personnel allow the purchasing department to bid on the shelter's behalf without input, they will get low-quality food.

This year we will be rewriting our food specifications in even more detail; our tiniest kittens are not eating the kitten chow we currently use because the pieces are too large. So, we will now indicate in our specifications the maximum diameter size for the dry kitten chow pieces. We also have a special donation fund specifically for "special needs" animals; we use the money to buy rice to cook for our puppies to keep their stools solid, and also to buy specialty foods for orphans and seniors.

To prevent having to hold large quantities—risking a potential rodent problem—we also decided what the minimum order and delivery frequency would be. We're also very careful about feeding donated food, because sometimes donations contain dyed food, spoiled food, or the occasional bug. We do receive food donations, and we do use them, but we're very careful about what we're mixing in with our daily stuff.

Diane Allevato, executive director
Marin Humane Society, Novato, California

We feed our cats and dogs Science Diet kibble—growth, maintenance, senior, and light, as indicated. In addition, once a day adult cats receive canned Science Diet feline food, while underweight dogs and finicky eaters receive canned Science Diet canine. The animals do well on the Science Diet products, and we appreciate the reliable delivery of just what we can use and store. The price is reasonable, too. The only exceptions to the basic Science Diet menu are that we use canned Friskies kitten food—our kittens seem to prefer it, and our veterinarian helps us determine when prescription diets are needed.

As a side note: The single biggest cause of diarrhea in shelters is overfeeding. We work with the staff so that all the animals get a measured amount of the right food, based on the size, condition, energy level, and breed of the particular dog or cat. Seconds are always available, but we find that feeding the right amounts eliminates waste and mess.

Nicky Ratliff, executive director
Humane Society of Carroll County, Westminster, Maryland

Some years back, I conducted a taste test followed by a stool check to see which food was eaten most readily and produced the fewest loose stools. A dry dog food made in Ohio and sold under the brand name "Buckeye" won. We feed this to all dogs who are more than a year old. Puppies are fed Purina Puppy Chow, and some dogs who are really small or old are fed canned food of various brands.

Dogs are fed once daily in the morning, and puppies at least twice a day (with the exception being Sundays, when they're fed a greater quantity of food, but fed only once due to staff constraints). Cats are free-fed, taking as much or as little as they need; we give them Purina Cat and Kitten Chow. We give canned food of various brands to very young cats, some older cats, and picky eaters.

We prefer to receive only canned food as donations. I like to keep the dry food constant so as to minimize upset stomachs, and for the dogs I don't want more than 21 percent protein; anything more results in excess energy. I think this makes them calmer, and they show better to prospective adopters. Additionally, it probably makes kenneling easier on them.

Eric Blow, director
Jefferson County Animal Control and Protection, Louisville, Kentucky

Most of our facility was designed and constructed in the early '60s. Because of the inherent flaws in shelter design during that period, the manner in which we feed is dictated by that design. We have 84 indoor/outdoor kennel runs for our dogs. Many of these will house multiple animals (some runs hold strays; other runs hold dogs up for adoption). The dry kibble is offered in galvanized feed troughs, attached to the interior gate, approximately 6 inches above floor level. Because we're feeding multiple animals, our food is provided "free choice," and food intake is monitored throughout the day and night. Troughs are cleaned and disinfected daily. We feed a high-quality canine ration with a guaranteed analysis of fiber, protein, fat, and essential nutrients; we don't really have a brand preference.

In our cattery, puppy area, and treatment/recovery area, we use stainless steel cages of varying dimensions. These cages have mounted feed bowls so cats and puppies won't spill them. All of our cats are fed a dry, high-quality feline ration. Animals requiring "appetite stimulation" are fed a high-quality canned food. Puppies and kittens are fed a high-quality ration designed specifically to cater to their growth and development needs.

A Nibble from The HSUS's Animal Sheltering Issues section:

Always strive to feed your animals a high-quality food: premium foods not only mean less mess in the stool department but also happier tummies in your kennels. Good food is thought to be easier on the digestive tract—an important factor to consider since animals are already stressed in the new environment of the shelter. For a tantalizing treat that is likely to tempt the taste buds of even the most finicky eaters, make a meaty sauce by mixing a couple of cans of wet food with water. Pour your gourmet gravy over bowls of dried food, and watch your dogs and cats chow down as if they're at the fanciest of feasts!

Bill Garrett, executive director
Atlanta Humane Society, Atlanta, Georgia

Almost by coincidence, our feeding schedule has worked out in such a way that our animals are fed during shelter visiting hours. The public has this crazy notion that all our animals are starving, so it's really helped to enhance our image; you can see the smiles when our visitors see our animals chowing down.

With our cats, we provide on-demand feeding. We find cats are more sedate with food handy—less fractious and more accommodating, and thus more adoptable. You could say that we "overfeed" our dogs, but they appear happier and more responsive, and there's less time and labor involved in "overfeeding" than in extreme, careful measurement of food quantities.

The general notion that a higher-grade food results in fewer stools is true, but sometimes you have to consider whether a 5-percent improvement is worth a 25- to 30-percent cost increase. But a steady diet of the same sort of food definitely means fewer stomach problems. This isn't really pet husbandry or lab animal medicine, but somewhere in between; the goal of our feeding process should be a good, well-balanced, mid-range-price food suitable for health and maintenance of the species. Commercial treats are no-no's, because upset stomachs and diarrhea can cause diagnostic difficulties in your shelter's medical programs and observations, and can disrupt your record-keeping of digestive "intake-output," content, daily weight gain/loss, etc.

Shelter medicine has been referred to as "herd medicine" by experienced shelter veterinarians; due to the way animals are housed and cared for in shelter settings, many of the health considerations are similar to those found among barn animal populations or herds of farm animals. Many experienced kennel managers say we're running "feed lot/ barn feeding" programs. At the Atlanta Humane Society, we need to feed the animals as a herd; animals with special dietary needs are seldom offered for adoption here. Small, limited-admission shelters talk about special feeding programs, but they handle far fewer animals than open-admission urban shelters.

Bob Rohde, president
Denver Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado

With puppies and kittens, we stay fairly constant because we buy most of the food for our young animals ourselves; we use the same food in our shelter as we do in our foster homes.

The public donates most of the feed for our adult animals. In terms of food donations, we don't see too many problems with mixing the brands our animals receive. As long as the foods are name-brand, quality foods, we will mix the dry foods together in a blend to feed our adult dogs and cats; this allows us to use donations without causing upset stomachs. Our machine for blending is called a "Hobart Mixer," designed for bakeries or large cafeterias. It was purchased 26 years ago and blends 40 to 50 pounds of dry food at a time, with a little bit of water and canned food added to the mix. We provide free-feeding of dry food to our adult cats, as well as a small amount of canned food once a day. We feed our adult dogs once a day, unless they come to us in bad shape and undernourished, in which case we give them smaller amounts of food but feed them more often. Puppies are fed three times a day. A lot of shelters get into problems by overfeeding their dogs, or allowing them to free-feed.


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