There are many different shelter models out there, all designed to address stray or unwanted pets. In some areas, there are only animal control organizations whose soul purpose is to pick up stray animals and return them to their owners, and as a result have no need for an adoption program if their "return to owner" rate is 100%.
Other organizations only work with people who need to surrender their pets and do not accept pets with unknown owners at all, providing a re-homing service. Some of these organizations may be breed-specific, and only accept golden retrievers or Siamese cats for example. Some organizations only accept animals from shelters in the first place, and don't accept animals relinquished by individual owners.
Some are a combination of the two, accepting strays for Animal Care & Control while trying to find an owner AND also accept owner-relinquished pets. This hybrid system can be advantageous. If an area has a central location for its animal shelter, then owners missing their pets in the surrounding localities know where to go to look for them or make a lost or found report. Sometimes, these hybrid facilities screen incoming owner-surrendered pets, only accepting the most friendly, healthiest, and friendliest among them as space and resources allow and others do not pre-screen. Some may charge a relinquishment fee, anywhere from $10 to hundreds or have a waiting list of 1 week to months.
A truly open admission animal shelter accepts ALL pets, regardless of temperament, breed, health, age, color, whether or not the pet has ID or previous vaccination history, or the ability of the finder or previous owner to pay for the pets' care during their stay. Open admission animal shelters often receive thousands of animals a year, all of which require basic food, water, space, toys, bedding, cleaning, preventative vaccinations and parasite treatments along with any medical care they might require such as rounds of antibiotics and wound care or ongoing health management like antihistamines, specialized diet, or special bathing.
As you might have guessed, the RHSPCA is an open admission animal shelter for Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County. ALL cats, dogs, domestic rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and other non-exotic companion animals from our jurisdiction are welcome here if their owner cannot keep them anymore. As the only one serving our area, we regularly receive animals that have been rejected from other local rescue groups and have no where else to go in time-sensitive situations.
As a result of our open door policy, some of the animals arrive here deathly ill, critically injured, or fractiously aggressive (or sometimes all of the above). An unfortunate reality is that those animals are beyond any reasonable means to cure or rehabilitate, and behavioral health is still part of an animal's (and community's) well-being. Euthanasia is in the best interest of these animals to prevent further suffering and to prevent further harm.
There is a wide gap between behaviorally health and fractious, proactive aggression, and we have consulted with many different sources to navigate these gray areas. For animal shelters, these are not unique questions, and so organizations like the ASPCA and professional experts such as Susan Friedman and Sue Sternberg have developed resources for animal shelters to break down animal behavior. While no behavioral assessment is 100% predictive, these assessments can help us understand what an animal needs to become behaviorally healthy if they are not, what kind of management or training program might be needed for an individual animal, and can help us identify risks or potential 'triggers' an animal might have.
While many behavior studies have been conducted with dogs and the overwhelming majority of behavior analysis has been with dogs, we use the same kind of evaluation for felines in our care. We ask the same questions our adopters ask: how do they like being handled? How are they with other cats? Dogs? Other kinds of pets? How are they with children (does the cat play rough? Will they allow themselves to be picked up by small, uncertain hands?)? How do they handle vaccinations, testing, and possibly medicating? The many questions associated with behavioral health all ask the same question at their core: is this animal reliably safe?
What our assessment allows us to do is create an individualized behavior plan should pets need some help becoming the best they can be. As Sue Sternberg points out on her Assess-A-Pet page, a standardized index of behaviors to reference helps animal shelters (ours included) understand what we're seeing and how to interpret it for a potential adopter. Our staff and volunteers work together to help pets in our care learn good manners, break bad habits, and replace undesirable behaviors with better ones while they are in our care so they'll be ready for to meet their new family.
In the last decade, this country seen a dramatic decrease in the number of dogs entering shelters; however, there will always be a proportion of them beyond reasonable means to re-home. As animal welfare changes and cultural shifts continue to embrace humane training practices, preventative vet care, and spay/neuter initiatives, we'll continue to see euthanasia of only the deathly ill and aggressive animals for whom euthanasia is the kindest option available to all parties involved. Perhaps a controversial statement, but a reality that needs a concrete solution that prevents harm to our friends, neighbors, and our community.
Curious about humane, force-free ways to teach your dog or cat polite behaviors? Want to better understand what they're thinking or up to? Check out the resources below:
The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
Karen Pryor Academy
Victoria Stilwell's Positively.com
Dr. Susan Friedman's BehaviorWorks.org (cats & parrots included!)
Pam Johnson-Bennett's Cat Behavior Associates
Dr. Ian Dunbar's TEDtalk on Dog Training (some language warning)