What empty cages and night killing mean at animal control shelters
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2008:
LOS ANGELES, NEW YORK CITY–Why do animal control shelters
claim they lack space to hold dogs and cats longer before killing
them, yet have empty kennels and cages when rescuers visit?
Why are animals killed at night, if not to conceal the
numbers being killed?
The Los Angeles County Depart-ment of Animal Care & Control
and the New York City Center for Animal Care & Control are each
killing fewer dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents than ever
before in their histories–under seven in Los Angeles, under three
in New York. Each city is well below the current national average of
Yet both agencies, and many others, are under more activist
scrutiny now than 30 years ago, when U.S. shelters killed six times
more animals–and even as they rehome more animals through
partnerships with rescuers than ever before.
Rescuer complaints reaching ANIMAL PEOPLE from Los Angeles
and New York in February 2008, only days apart, detailed issues
which may include instances of animal control personnel failing to
observe good shelter practice. The complaints focused, however,
like many others received from other cities in recent years, on
finding empty cages and kennels on morning visits, after animals
were killed the night before.
The common element may be simply that agencies have
insufficiently explained to rescuers how shelter space is allocated.
An animal control shelter must maintain open kennels at all
times for immediate impoundment of dogs arriving due to emergency,
including situations in which multiple dogs arrive at once. Examples
include cases in which a person or animal has been attacked by a
pack; a suspected rabies case that may have exposed other animals to
infection; the discovery of starving animals in a home where someone
living alone has died; traffic accidents involving people traveling
with multiple pets; and unexpectedly finding aggressive dogs at the
scene of an arrest.
The trick, for animal control shelter management, is to
have adequate capacity to handle whatever crisis comes. This is
often complicated because many animal control shelters are too small
for their communities.
Even if a shelter today serves exactly the same human
population that it did 50 years ago, 50-year-old shelters were often
built for agencies that did not yet handle cats.
Shelters built 42 years ago predate the five-day holding
period recommended by federal Animal Welfare Act. Though not binding
on shelters that do not sell animals to laboratories, the five-day
hold has been the U.S. norm since 1966.
Shelters built as recently as 20 years ago were often built
without isolation and quarantine areas, because prevailing belief–
now known to be incorrect–was that most animals would be killed
before they could infect others with any diseases they carried.
Even shelters built only 10 years ago are often just half the
size that would today be considered ideal, now that animals who are
believed to have good adoption prospects are typically kept for 10
days to two weeks.
If an animal control shelter serves a city of one million
people, who keep 200,000 dogs, with an impoundment rate of about
one dog in 20 per year, all close to the current U.S. norms, the
shelter would take in about 10,000 dogs each year, or 27.4 per day,
normally fluctuating from about nine on a slow day up to as many as
80 on days when multiple or really big emergencies occur.
Having emergency capacity at all times equal to the slow day
intake is usually considered minimal. At the start of each day it is
also necessary to have space available equal to the anticipated
Animal control directors usually estimate “normal” traffic
from a crude average of comparable dates. “Normal” traffic in summer
is often twice the average volume in mid-winter. Usually more dogs
arrive early in the week, because more dogs are lost or dumped on
weekends. “Normal” for a shelter with average daily dog intake of
27.4 might be 40 on Monday, but only 20 on Thursday.
Cat intake tends to be heaviest on weekends, when more
people surrender cats to shelters or deliver trapped feral cats.
Shelter space is usually allocated based on “cage days.” A
“cage day” is a day on which a cage or kennel is occupied. If a
shelter impounds 10,000 dogs per year, who are held an average of
five days before disposition, the agency needs kennel space enough
to provide 50,000 cage days. This would require about 150 kennels,
including minimal excess capacity for emergencies.
The same ratios would apply to average annual impoundment of
Opening enough space each night to house the anticipated
intake the next day is standard procedure for two reasons. One is
that if a shelter is obliged to kill animals, the job tends to be
less stressful for both the animals and the staff if done during the
quiet hours. The other is that killing animals at the same time as
processing new arrivals is practically a prescription for confusion,
escalating the chance that cage cards will be mxed up and the wrong
animals will be killed by mistake.
Shelter staff typically hope to partner with angelic rescuers
who each evening will take out whatever the necessary number of dogs
and cats for fostering and adoption, so that no animals need be
Reality is that animal control agencies today kill an average
of 34.25 dogs and as many as 40 cats per day per million human
residents of their service areas–and this is the lowest rate of
killing recorded in 55 years.
About half of the dogs killed will be pit bull terriers and
close mixes who have bitten someone or have flunked temperament
screening. Nearly 25% of the dogs arriving at animal control
shelters these days are pit bull terriers and their close mixes, of
unknown origin, as ANIMAL PEOPLE confirmed with a 62-shelter survey
in January 2008.
Triage procedures have changed immensely from 15 years ago
and longer, when most shelters did little more than checking the
dates on cage cards. Suspected dangerous dogs back then were killed
on receipt, unless quarantined for observation of possible rabies
symptoms after biting someone. Shelters usually did triage just once
Now many shelters do formal temperament assessment of dogs,
usually a day after the dogs arrive, to give them “settling down”
time, and in effect have multiple triages. First comes the
temperament screening. Then, after the requisite holding time
expires, rescuers take the dogs and cats they want. After that,
the shelter staff may do further triage as anticipated space need
indicates. Preparing for weekends is especially difficult.
Shelters often try to have the largest possible abundance of
adoptable animals on hand to adopt out over the weekend. But
weekends also bring heavy drop-off traffic, and then comes the
Monday influx of animals found at large. Therefore, to go into a
weekend with full kennels and cages is to gamble that adoptions will
In 1993, when ANIMAL PEOPLE first surveyed the U.S. shelter
dog population, about 25% were purebreds. The balance were mixed
breeds, with large dark dogs predominant. If an animal control
agency offered 140 dogs for adoption on a Saturday morning, among
them would have been 35 purebreds and 105 mixed breeds. In a city of
one million people, these 140 dogs would have been approximately
equal to three days’ intake.
The typical breakdown today still includes 25% purebreds,
plus 25% pit bulls. Large dark dogs are still predominant among the
mixed breed remainder.
Of 140 dogs on hand on a Friday night, 35 are purebreds, 35
are pit bulls, and 70 are mixed breeds, equal to about five or six
days’ intake at the present intake rate.
If the most dangerous two dozen pit bulls are culled before
the shelter opens to the public, only 116 dogs may be offered for
adoption–but because shelters are receiving just a fraction as many
animals, and are rehoming far more, with much rescuer help, the
total number of dogs killed is much less than back when all the cages