Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Why are animal shelters stressful and what can we do?

Shelters can be fill of stressors compared to the homes that shelter animals have come from.

Animal shelters are increasingly focusing on the mental health of the animals they care for which is absolutely fantastic. This was the topic by a talk by Dr Mags Awad, former Chief Veterinarian for the RSPCA NSW and now Chief Veterinarian for PetSure, and veterinary behaviourist Dr Kersti Seksel at the behaviour conference last week.

Its simple, really. No matter how excellent a shelter is – and some are pretty incredible these days – it is a stressful environment for animals. Why?
  • They may be uncertain after being abandoned or losing their home territory;
  • They may be fearful in an unfamiliar environment;
  • There are different routines, noises and smells;
  • There is usually a different diet to adapt to;
  • They may not be able to toilet when and where they used to;
  • There can be a high rate of human and animal traffic;
  • Animals in shelters have a severe lack of control and choice;
  • They may lack contact with people for most of the day;
  • They are handled by unfamiliar people.

Studies have shown that a longer length of stay in a shelter is correlated with development of behaviour problems. This makes animals LESS adoptable and thus more likely to stay in shelters longer, perpetuating the cycle.

According to Dr Seksel, 25 per cent of dogs surrendered to shelters are surrendered for problem behaviour, including boisterousness, aggression to other people and aggression to other dogs. Surrender was more likely if there was another pet in the household, and if the animal was adopted from a shelter. 

Clearly more work needs to be done to tackle behaviour problems before owners feel these are insurmountable.

According to Dr Awad, one of the most important things we can do is fast-track adoption of healthy pets through shelters.

What else can we do? Some authors have suggested replacing behaviour assessments (none of which have been shown to be reliable) with opportunities to interact with animals in ways that we expect they will interact with their new owners, e.g. having volunteers sitting quietly and reading with them, or taking dogs for a walk.
  • We can also work on creating predictable routines;
  • Reducing sensory overload (e.g. by reducing noise, novel smells);
  • Providing social support (people and other animals);
  • Allowing animals to make choices;
  • Providing exercise;
  • Providing time outdoors;
  • Providing staff training on mental health and behaviour in animals.

Members of the public can help by:
  • Adopting animals from shelters;
  • Enrolling in puppy schools, kitten kindies and dog training to establish good habits;
  • Volunteering at shelters;
  • Fundraising for local shelters;
  • Seeking help early if they find animal behaviour problematic.