Recent media reports about overcrowding and lack of exercise for dogs at some other Los Angeles area animal shelters has prompted discussions about animal shelter population management. This is a key operational issue for animal shelters and deserving of the public’s attention.
When I joined the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control (DACC) as its Director 21 years ago, I was shocked at the overcrowding and management of the animal population in its (then) six animal care centers. More than 80,000 dogs and cats – and 10,000 other animals – came through our doors every year, more than any other animal care and control agency in the nation. There was no control over the inflow of animals, and it overwhelmed DACC’s capacity to provide adequate care.
Because of this extraordinary volume of incoming animals, three to four large dogs or five to seven small dogs were housed in each dog run. Two to three cats would be housed in the same cage, competing for space with the litter box and food and water bowls. The stress this caused for the animals was very high, which challenged their immune systems and contributed to upper respiratory infections and other illnesses. Animals did not receive any type of behavioral enrichment.
We quickly began reversing this situation through a variety of initiatives. First, we worked towards reducing the number of animals that need DACC services. One of the most important steps in this effort was the passing of mandatory spay/neuter laws in Los Angeles County and many of our contract cities. This reduced the number of unwanted puppies and kittens, or adult pets that roamed in search of mates because they were unsterilized. That meant fewer animals to strain our limited resources.
We also expanded our partnerships with animal rescue groups, known as “adoption partners,” at DACC. By working with our adoption partners, we can quickly move animals into their care for eventual placement with families. This reduces the number of animals that must remain in the DACC care centers. DACC now works with more than 350 adoption partners and has a formalized program that ensures accountability, while providing support through fee reductions and other services to allow the adoption partners to stretch their limited resources. We are grateful for their collaboration.
DACC welcomed the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and some local nonprofit organizations, to provide intervention services at several of our busier care centers for people surrendering their pets. The ASPCA generously provided significant staffing and resources for their program to provide pet owners with the knowledge and ability to keep their pets, preventing their unnecessary surrender to DACC. These resources were so impactful that DACC incorporated them into its admission services as a regular operational practice known as Managed Intake. Keeping families and the pets they love together is an important community service and helps further reduce the number of animals unnecessarily surrendered to DACC care centers.
Los Angeles County’s adoption of the Socially Conscious Animal Sheltering (SCAS) animal management model has been instrumental in avoiding animal overcrowding and lack of behavioral enrichment. SCAS is the gold standard of animal population management, which ensures animals in shelters are provided with appropriate care, and the community’s values and safety are respected.
SCAS was developed in response to the many animal sheltering problems identified with “no-kill” animal sheltering. These include animal shelters overcrowded to the detriment of the health and well-being of the animals, dangerous conditions for staff and volunteers who must care for aggressive dogs that shouldn’t be warehoused in the shelter, and risks to public safety by releasing dangerous dogs for adoption. These have been found to be common problems in “no-kill” sheltering because the “no-kill” model requires animal shelters to achieve an arbitrary 90% live release rate of animals. Chasing a specious and unsupported percentage goal can cause operational decisions to be made to the detriment of both the animals and the public.
We have also partnered with the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program for several years in developing strategies for population management and best care practices. These experts’ Capacity for Care (C4C) model means meeting the needs of every animal admitted to a shelter, regardless of how or when they came in, or their age, health status, and personality. UC Davis further explains this animal shelter population management concept on their website:
“On the surface, this seems like a simple and logical statement. Operating within an organization’s C4C is the foundation on which all other guidelines for care rest. If more animals are admitted at any one time than can be provided with an environment that meet their needs; or if more animals are admitted over time than can be released alive, inevitably animals’ mental or physical welfare will be compromised. This also creates an environment where staff are not able to do their best work, which often results in staff feeling less fulfilled and frustrated in their daily work.
Once a shelter is operating within their C4C, human resources (staff, volunteers, others) are often freed up to do any of a number of other important shelter tasks to further serve the shelter animals and/or community outreach programs. This system feeds positively on itself. Meeting C4C allows animals to remain healthy with good welfare during their stay and move through the system quickly without delays from illness. Since animals arrive at their appropriate outcomes more quickly, resources are freed up to further serve the mission and goals of the facility – often with an ability to serve more animals. The organization can thus be an even better resource for the community to improve welfare of animals within and beyond the shelter walls.”
DACC also has a dedicated Behavior and Enrichment (BET) team, comprised of staff with specialized training in animal behavior. The BET team ensures dogs regularly get out of their runs and participate in dog play groups. These are held in dog play yards funded by the Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation and other nonprofit partners. Dog play groups are excellent ways to discover each dog’s unique personality for successful placement purposes, and gives dogs the much needed opportunity for exercise, socialization, and de-stressing.
Our volunteers also assist with animal care. Walking, playing, comforting, socializing, and grooming are just some of the services they provide to our residents. Volunteers are cherished and allow DACC to provide more robust care for the animals.
Using fear-free animal handling practices, DACC has reduced the stress on both cats and dogs and has seen a significant decrease in stress-induced illnesses. All animal handling staff have completed this training, along with many ongoing animal behavioral training opportunities to continue to maintain a workforce skilled in proper animal handling procedures.
To ensure our animal population is properly monitored, our animal care center managers, BET staff, and medical staff meet weekly to review the status of each dog and develop exit plans to help them get adopted or placed with adoption partners. We promote our longer stay dogs for adoption on social media and at offsite adoption events. Our executive team and I receive weekly reports of dogs who have been here longer than 20, 40, and 60 days to further monitor the animal population.
While many dogs have behavioral issues that can be remediated through behavior modification and training, some dogs come to us with histories of unprovoked aggression or other dangerous behavior. It is unfair to warehouse these dogs that have little hope of placement, and to the public and innocent pets who might be injured or killed if these dogs are placed into the community. In these cases, these dogs are humanely euthanized to protect public safety and so they do not suffer from behavioral stress, physical illness, and deteriorate in our care. These decisions are never made lightly, and each dog’s history is carefully reviewed to ensure there are no other safe options for the dog’s placement. Warehousing them when there is no suitable option for placement in order to achieve a lower euthanasia rate is unfair to them and the adoptable animals who need every resource we can direct to them.
Cats have also received close attention for managing their well-being. Providing alternatives to admission has taken two paths for cats. First, a vibrant foster program exists to provide care for underaged kittens that will fail to thrive in an animal shelter due to their undeveloped immune systems. These kittens are placed directly with foster care volunteers, who raise them until they are weaned. The kittens are then spayed or neutered and placed with new families. The ASPCA is a leading partner in this effort.
Healthy, adult free-roaming cats are generally deferred from admission. These cats are thriving in their territory, obtaining food and shelter often provided by compassionate residents. By allowing these cats to remain where they have already found resources, DACC can focus its limited means on those cats that are ill, injured, in danger, or otherwise have no other safe option and need our assistance.
In our animal care centers we have used cat portals to expand the size of our cat housing units. Portals join two adjacent cat cages into double or triple-sized cat condos via a pass-through portal that can be shut to prevent escapes while cleaning. The use of portals means the cats have more opportunity for exercise and separate areas for their litter box, food, and water. The Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation has also paid for the installation of outdoor “catios” at several animal care centers so cats can safely enjoy the fresh air and sunlight.
In 2016 DACC also added its seventh animal care center in Palmdale to relieve the housing pressure at its Lancaster animal care center, which had served as the sole animal care center for the entire Antelope Valley since 1959. Expanding the number of animal care centers has provided more housing availability. Additionally, DACC regularly transfers dogs from its higher volume care centers to those that have extra space to accommodate them. These transfers allow the dogs more opportunities to be seen and adopted.
DACC has seen a dramatic decrease in animal euthanasia because of all these initiatives, and our continuing efforts to provide positive, industry-proven resources and programs to the animals and communities we serve. In 2001, 70% of dogs and 78% of cats were euthanized. By 2022, those percentages have plummeted to 14.8% for dogs and 31.7% for cats. While there will always be a need for compassionate, humane euthanasia for animals that are irremediably ill, injured, or behaviorally unsound, DACC makes every effort to see this as a last resort. In fiscal year 2021-22, DACC admitted about 27,000 dogs and cats, a 66% decrease since 2001. We are now far better equipped to provide compassionate and impactful care to the animals that need us.
Ten independent agencies provide animal care and control in various areas within Los Angeles County. Each has their own operational policies and practices. DACC continues to be recognized as a national leader in animal welfare and will continue to redefine animal care and sheltering in the future.
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