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What's your magic number?

Analyzing shelter capacity can increase live releases

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2015

At the Animal Humane Society in Minnesota, portals between adjacent cages give resident felines double the space, making for healthier, happier, more adoptable animals.Squeezing cats into every available space is stressful for the cats and the people tending to them. Shelters that stay within their capacity for care limit will have happier staff and volunteers, who can provide more attention to individual animals.With the capacity for care calculator, shelters can determine the maximum number of animals they can house while still maintaining the five freedoms of animal welfare.Strategies for managing intake numbers include surrender-by-appointment policies, pet-retention counseling and neuter-return programs for community cats.Through fast-tracking, highly adoptable animals like this puppy are moved quickly through the intake process and placed on the adoption floor. The strategy helps shelters free up time for harder-to-adopt residents.

Just a handful of years ago, if an owner stopped by to surrender a cat, the staff at the SPCA Serving Erie County would find a way to accommodate them.

But a tragedy left the New York shelter exploring a new way of thinking.

“It was in August of 2009, and we were taking in every cat that we could fit,” recalls executive director Barbara Carr. “We [even] had 75 cats in our multipurpose room, a 40-by-40-foot room intended for overflow.”

After the highly contagious feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) swept through, 39 of those cats died.

“It was an awakening. Animals dying in the care of an animal shelter is far worse than the potential of being abandoned by an owner,” Carr says.

Soon, the SPCA began doing things a little differently. Instead of allowing every cat in the door, the shelter kept a waiting list for owners wishing to surrender a cat. Instead of filling every available cage, staff worked toward freeing up enough cages to give each cat the space of two cages. And they expedited their intake process, moving the most adoptable cats into the public adoption area faster.

These weren’t just random efforts; they were following a set of principles—known as “capacity for care”—they’d heard of from the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Animal shelters across the U.S. and Canada have credited these principles with improving the care and outlook for hundreds of shelter animals and for making their daily operations more efficient.

The Birth of an Idea

The ideas behind the capacity for care concept have been in the making since 2008, when veterinarians Kate Hurley and Sandra Newbury of UC Davis began researching and writing about the relationship between calculating capacity, managing length of stay and maintaining welfare standards in shelters. In 2011, when Hurley was planning a vacation in Vancouver, Canada, she connected with James Lawson, a veterinarian at the British Columbia SPCA. Hurley offered to do a lecture while she was in the area, and the two tossed around ideas for a topic.

It was shortly after the Association of Shelter Veterinarians had released its Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, which challenged shelters to meet basic standards for animal care. These standards included the “five freedoms,” as defined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

Realizing that many shelters were considering how to implement the new guidelines effectively, Hurley presented an evening lecture around that issue, and later returned to Vancouver to give a full-day lecture. Soon the term “capacity for care” came to represent the suite of practices and standards for achieving these goals.

Hurley knew the ideas were being well received, but when Lawson later sent along statistics from a Canadian shelter that had been implementing the concepts, she realized the full impact.

“Live releases were up, adoptions were up, illnesses and length of stay were down. We were helping more animals,” she says. “We never expected such a dramatic effect.

“It ties back to the why: to provide the five freedoms of animal welfare to every animal that passes through our shelters. And in the process, as an incredibly happy side effect, give each one the best possible chance at life.”

Calculating Your Capacity

Capacity for care is based on a fairly simple concept: Use real data to calculate the number of animals your shelter can comfortably care for, then keep within that number. If an organization has reached a point where high intake numbers are driving staff to scrimp on any of the five freedoms, it’s time to rethink its processes.

While the basics of capacity for care sound logical, the difficulty often lies in changing traditional ways of thinking. To some, it may seem counterintuitive, says Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for The HSUS. “To help more cats, you house fewer cats at any one time. But the result is that those cats will be happier, healthier, and will move through the system faster—ultimately enabling you to help more cats.”

The old-school method of populating a shelter was to take in as many animals as seemed necessary, compromising the animals’ living space if needed. But with capacity for care in mind, a shelter’s population limit is derived not just from cage space, but also from available staffing and volunteer hours.

Shelters can use the capacity for care calculator to figure out their own limits, but Inga Fricke, director of shelter and rescue group services at The HSUS, shares a simplified example: “The HSUS estimates it takes about 15 minutes for the feeding and cleaning of each animal. That means one staff member working eight hours can only care for up to 32 animals in a day—and that’s just for providing basic care, not time for grooming, enrichment, training or any of the other important work that goes into finding animals new homes.”

Determining capacity “is not something that shelters should try to do; it’s something they must do,” says Fricke. “When you are over capacity, your animals suffer.”

Take Two

With more control over your capacity, it’s possible to make changes to your kennel and cage allocations.

After initially controlling its intakes, the SPCA Serving Erie County saw significant benefits: Eight percent of owners on the waiting list decided to keep their cats, and 12 percent were able to rehome their cats with advice from the shelter. Shelter deaths from illness dropped 56 percent between 2009 and 2013.

But Carr felt there was still room for improvement. While the average length of stay for adult cats had gone from 28 days in 2010 to 24.1 days in 2013, she hoped to reduce it further. She also had lingering concerns over the rate of feline upper respiratory infections (URIs).

“My vet suggested we reduce capacity even more, which would enable us to use portals to join two cages into one,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”

Mindful of the success that followed other changes, Carr eventually agreed, and between July 2013 and the spring of 2014, staff cut cages and affixed pipe to create a cat-size opening between adjoining cages. Inhabitants could move freely between the two areas, and enjoy greater distance between their food bowl and litter box.

Average length of stay dropped to 19 days in 2014, and URIs were reduced by 22 percent, says Carr.

Providing adequate living space is critical to ensuring the five freedoms in ways that may not always be obvious. For example, Hurley points out, “If a cat’s quarters are too small, and he can’t help but kick poop from the litter box into the food dish, you’re not providing freedom from hunger”—because the cat may not want to eat that food.

Keep ’Em Moving

Capacity for care is about more than just whittling down numbers; a critical component involves taking a look at your internal operations.

“Once you have that magic number, it jump-starts all sorts of creative thinking,” says Fricke. She suggests examining all processes to identify delays or bottlenecks and find ways to move animals from intake through adoption more efficiently.

To expedite internal flow, many shelters have implemented a system to help quickly identify highly adoptable animals. Called “fast-tracking,” this system gives new intakes a score. Favorable qualities—such as a young age, a desirable color or breed or an animal who’s already spayed or neutered—add points. Problems, such as a bite/scratch history or known health issues, reduce the score.

High scorers are moved quickly through all prerequisite steps to get the green light for adoption. This helps keep shelter numbers down, and gives staff more time to tend to those who need additional services.

Both the SPCA Serving Erie County and the Animal Humane Society (AHS), which serves Minneapolis-St. Paul and Greater Minnesota, have implemented fast-tracking. “Putting our easiest-to-place animals out helps us keep everything moving along,” says Carr.

“We’ve had cases where an animal comes in, has exams and is in the adoption area in a matter of hours,” adds Kathie Johnson, senior director of operations for AHS.

Less Is More

Reducing your numbers to match your capacity is unlikely to occur organically. A starting point is to control the flow of animals coming through your door.

“Many shelters want to say no when they are over capacity, but don’t know how,” says Lisnik.

AHS moved from open admissions to a surrender-by-appointment policy in 2011, as part of its effort to gain control of its capacity.

Johnson first spoke to other shelters that had success implementing similar policies. Aware of the potential for public resistance, she made sure her staff was fully informed and able to explain the goals behind the changes.

“Of course, there’s always going to be someone upset, but when we explained, we received overwhelming support,” she says. Waiting time for a surrender appointment at AHS varies, with the longest being three to four weeks during heavy intake months.

Once the new policy was in place, between 2010 and 2013, AHS reduced its feline intakes by 10,000 cats, while increasing its feline adoption rate from 50.7 percent to 71.7 percent.

Johnson points out that lower intake numbers don’t necessarily equate to helping fewer animals. “We offer owners resources and ideas they may not have been aware of,” she explains. “We do not turn any animal away … but if we can give owners an alternative to surrendering, we’re still helping, just in a different way.”

AHS staff also reach out to owners who don’t keep their scheduled surrender appointment. Oftentimes, the news is good.

“Of the people we’ve connected with—around 50 to 60 percent [of no-shows]—almost 40 percent of them have ended up keeping the animal, or found a new home on their own,” she reports.

Trickle-Down Effects

The concepts behind capacity for care aren’t exclusive to cats. Dogs and other shelter animals will benefit from application of the same concepts to achieve improved living conditions and less overwhelmed staff. And in situations where the focus is on felines, other shelter animals still reap indirect benefits.

“If you’re moving along the cats, you’re freeing up space and resources for other animals in the shelter,” Hurley says.

Capacity for care principles may soon be reflected in products for shelters and rescue groups. Staff at the Koret Shelter Medicine Program are working on a premanufactured portal to easily connect two adjoining cages. They’ve also talked to cage manufacturers about creating housing that better meets a cat’s space needs.

“As these concepts are embraced, capacity for care will just kind of happen on its own,” says Hurley. “There is no downside; it costs less, and you’ll have more live releases.”

Boston-area freelancer Debbie Swanson is a frequent contributor to animal publications.

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About the Author

Boston-area freelancer Debbie Swanson is a frequent contributor to animal publications.