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MAKING INTAKE AND ADOPTION SPECIAL FOR SPECIAL NEEDS PETS
The Task at Hand (or Paw)
While the spring and summer are the busiest and most challenging times of the year for many of us in animal welfare, the good news is that a little planning and preparation now can go a long way to ensuring things run smoothly in the months ahead.
During Kitten Season, raising orphaned kittens on a large scale has long been considered a job better left to small-scale rescue groups, or achieved in small numbers by dedicated foster volunteers.1 The expansion of feline foster programs and, more notably, the establishment of kitten nurseries to address Kitten Season, are changing the situation for the better. Both inside the shelter and in the greater community, and with media exposure, this idea is catching on as a way to bring awareness to the kittens and drives potential adopters to the rescue or shelter.
As an example, The Best Friends Animal Society in New York City’s kitten nursery operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The nursery’s team of staff members, volunteers and foster homes provide around-the-clock care for every kitten. Their duties include bottle-feeding every two hours, preparing food, doing laundry, making sure each kitten has a warm blanket, and more. No matter the task, the goal is to provide each kitten with all the newborn support he or she needs. Best Friends kitten nursery also takes in as many kittens as possible from partner shelters to further the goal of no-kill shelters in New York City and its surrounding areas.
Ready for the Busy Spring and Summer Months?
First, estimate how many cats and kittens you are likely to see this year. This important detail forms the foundation of your planning, and lets you accurately estimate which resources—housing, staff members, volunteers, foster homes, vaccinations, medications—you’ll need.2
When estimating how many cats and kittens you may see, you should look at the intake numbers in several ways3:
- Separate strays from owner surrenders, because in most cases they will have different holding periods based upon vaccination status. If that doesn’t apply in your jurisdiction (e.g. there is no holding period for cats) or if you don’t accept strays, don’t worry about this step.
- Separate kittens from adults. A cut-off of 5 months is a general rule per the ASPCA, but your shelter may handle different populations of kittens differently.
- Look at the real number for each month, rather than using annual intake and assuming it is equal across every day of the year.
- It’s always a good idea to look back at several years—particularly if your shelter is seeing a trend of increasing or decreasing intake.
- Place this information into an easy-to-chart program like Excel—it’s easy to organize, and you can use calculations in the spreadsheet.
Next, it’s important to assess your shelter or rescue’s capacity for care and compare available resources to the population of cats in your shelter in order to eliminate any gaps.
Protocols and Procedures4
Age and surrender status of the kittens determine shelter intake protocols and procedures. Below are recommendations to keep in mind:
- Physical examination
- Viral testing (feline leukemia and FIV)
- Treat for internal and external parasites
- If stray, quarantine until available for adoption
- If surrendered and healthy, place for immediate adoption
- If too young for adoption, utilize foster care/foster family
Although Kitten Season may seem like a year-round event, shelter and rescue groups have done an exemplary job trying to stabilize the feral cat population, which in turn impacts the number of kittens that are born this time of year.
What can make a difference in how to manage this time of year is getting the word out within your community that “The season is coming”. By letting people know early that their help is needed, you will have a better chance of recruiting volunteers and a list of foster families eager to help with your kittens.
ARE YOUR DOGS SUFFERING FROM NOISE AVERSION?
From the minute a pet enters a shelter, decisions are being made that will affect his or her life, possibly forever. What are they like? How do they behave? What do they need? The shelter’s intake process is a critical first step in answering those questions for all pets, but even more so for those with special needs, whether medical, behavioral, or related to the animals’ daily life.
Dr. Sheila D’Arpino is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and director of research for Maddie’s Fund. “An ideal intake process for special needs pets would involve getting to know as much as you can about the dog and cat before they come through your doors,” she said. “For owner-surrendered pets, I would recommend setting up intake appointments and getting everything you can from their current owner, including veterinary records if possible, and a behavior history.”
ASK THE CRITICAL QUESTIONS
Questions Dr. D’Arpino suggests asking:
- Has there been a medical or behavioral diagnosis by a veterinarian?
- What treatment has been tried, if any, and what were the results?
- What accommodations does the pet require in his daily life?
“The behavior history is crucial for pets whose special needs are in the area of behavior,” she said. “We know there’s no scientific validation of any of the behavior assessments we use in shelters today.”
What about special needs pets who come in as strays, and whose special needs may not always be obvious?
“Those are a little more challenging, because we can't get the history that helps us form the picture of the dog or cat,” she said. “But when we do determine they have significant special needs, we should try to send them to foster as soon as possible. This allows us to develop a picture of their behavior and needs in a home environment, because often when stress is reduced, their health and behavior can really improve.”
Foster care programs are important for all pets, but particularly so for those with special needs. “For any pet being in the shelter is stressful, but a pet who has special needs and whose life is a lot more challenging, being in a shelter exacerbates things a hundred fold,” Dr. D’Arpino said.
“There is research that shows stress reduces when pets go into a foster home. In the shelter, they have no control over their environment, but in a home they do. The change you see is very profound.”
ASSESS YOUR ORGANIZATION’S RESOURCES
Sending pets to foster care is ideal, as is a special needs-specific intake process. But is it always realistic for every shelter? “It depends on the shelter's leadership and their policies,” Dr. D’Arpino said. “Building flexibility into your admission processes is critical for providing the most options for special needs pets, as well as every pet in your organization.”
Dr. D’Arpino also suggests that shelters begin with assessing their own resources.
“If you’re just getting into taking in special needs pets and finding homes for them, and don’t have much experience with this population, it’s important to know your shelter. What are your resources? Do you have a veterinarian and behaviorist on staff or available to consult? If you don’t, you can likely find someone to help. I can’t tell you how many dog trainers tell me they go to their local shelter to help, and the shelter won’t let them.”
There are other avenues to explore to get the local animal welfare community involved when it comes to special needs pets. Her recommendations include calling local veterinarians and trainers about special needs pets in your shelter and ask them if they can evaluate the pet.
“For special needs pets, I want to find a home where those needs aren’t a problem. It might take longer to find that pet a home, and you might need a more aggressive marketing plan. The key is getting as many eyes on that pet as possible.”
A PERSONAL CONNECTION
Dr. D’Arpino has fostered countless pets herself over the years, almost all special needs. One in particular sticks in her mind.
“About 15 rat terrier mixes were part of a custody case, and some of them were super-fearful,” she said. “I fostered four of them in my home. One of them was a dog named Vinnie, who couldn’t even stand to be touched. But he improved slightly, and I brought him back to the shelter to find a home. But no one was interested in Vinnie.”
One day, she was at the shelter when a man came in looking for a companion. He was paraplegic, and was specifically looking for a dog to be a buddy, not as a service dog.
“He had gone to other shelters, and none of them would adopt to him,” she said. “I spoke with him about what kind of pet he was looking for; he was a wonderful guy! I introduced him to Vinnie, and he loved him.” It was truly a perfect match, as a special needs dog found his own special family.
MAXIMIZING ADOPTIONS AFTER THE HOLIDAYS
There are different reasons why people give up their pets around the holidays: often the animal is given as an unwanted gift, or the family simply underestimates the commitment required. Still the scene is unfortunately familiar at shelters and rescues during and after the holidays.
There has long been a strong belief in the shelter and rescue world that pets should not be adopted as gifts for fear of increased re-surrenders. This has influenced the way some animal welfare organizations handle this type of potential adopter. In contrast, a study from the ASPCA shows that perceptions from those who have received pets as gifts are much more positive.
In the 2013 study “Should Dogs and Cats be Given as Gifts?,” the ASPCA surveyed 222 individuals who received pets as a gift. When asked if obtaining a pet as a gift increased, decreased, or had no impact on the love or attachment to the pet, 96% thought it either increased or had no impact.
Additionally, 86% of the pets referred to in the study were still in the home. The study concluded that denying adopters who intend to give the animals as gifts may unnecessarily impede the overarching goal of increasing adoptions of pets from our nations’ shelter system. “We found that receiving a dog or cat as a gift was not associated with impact on self-perceived love/attachment, or whether the dog or cat was still in the home. These results suggest there is no increased risk of relinquishment for dogs and cats received as a gift.” Read the complete study here.1
While some groups have embraced holiday pets, the animal welfare community is still divided, even with the research, explained Dr. Emily Weiss, ASPCA vice president of research and development. “Sheltering organization and rescue groups work independently and all have their own opinions, so it takes a long time to change their behavior,” she stated.
Two perfect examples are Texas-based Austin Pets Alive and Atlanta-based FurKids. Austin Pets Alive is a large no-kill shelter with several rescue programs throughout Texas. According to shelter spokeswoman Lisa Maxwell, the shelter stands by their policy that people aren't allowed to adopt if the pet will be given as a gift outside their immediate family. On the other end of the spectrum, FurKids has been very successful with long-lasting holiday pet adoptions, says founder and CEO Samantha Shelton.
Post-Holiday Adoption Strategies
Here are ways your shelter or rescue can get the word out on post-holiday intakes you may receive, and prevent resurrenders2:
1. A Value-Added After-Holiday Adoption Promotion
For a value-added adoption special, consider promoting an “Adoption Starter Kit” such as a pet collar, leash, water/food bowl, or bag of food.
2. Low Cost Post-Holiday Adoption Specials
Share a special promotion with other local shelters -- it allows you to join forces for any marketing costs and it creates a sense of community.
3. Convenient Adoption Hours
Shelters who want to increase adoptions during the post-holiday season want to consider additional hours on weekends, and staying open later on working days.
4. Photos Work Wonders
Invite local photographers (pro, hobbyists, and college students willing to work for free or at a very low cost) to come to the shelter and take beautiful photos of your homeless pets, then post them on social media sites such as your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. If you don’t know how to use social media, volunteers are willing to help with it.
5. Coordinate Surrenders
Speak with families who plan on giving up their pet and ask them to wait at least a week before turning them into the shelter, so you can promote the animal on your social media page. This way, the animal has a greater chance of being adopted and it’s less stressful – it also allows for space at the shelter for another animal.
6. Promotional Flyers in Your City
Get your shelter or rescue flyers up in local pet stores, fast food restaurants, gift shops, vet offices, and anywhere people sit and wait, like auto repair/oil change shops, doctors and dentist’s offices, and the DMV.
7. Prep for Your Own “Puppy Bowl”
Instead of getting ready for the Super Bowl, plan a “Puppy Bowl” at your shelter or rescue! Get the word out on social media and contact the local media for coverage.
8. Use Zoetis’ PawPath to Educate Your New Pet Parents
PawPath was designed with shelters, for shelters. It’s a free digital offering exclusive to Zoetis For Shelters members that helps you provide a fun, personalized, fully-automated support experience to new adopters. You can find out more here.
The “holiday afterglow” does not apply to shelter and rescue animals; it can be a stressful time for homeless pets, and those who take care of them. But by planning your organization’s strategy now, there may be a greater chance to ‘clear the shelters’ in early in 2018.