Strange faces. Annoying neighbors. Weird sounds.
For some dogs and cats, the new experience of a shelter is a respite from the situation they came from. But many animals are thrust into a world they knew nothing about before: shelter life. Imagine sensory overload: sight, smell, touch, and hearing are heightened, as an animal’s senses are so much more sensitive than a human’s.
Dogs with behavior problems tend to languish longer in shelters due to the understandable reluctance on the part of most adopters to take on a dog with possible ongoing behavior challenges.1 In addition, shelter staff often hold onto the dogs before making them available for adoption to work on the behavior problem.
The resulting longer stay puts dogs at increased risk of developing kennel-induced behavior problems, and additionally has an exacerbating effect on their existing problems. The behavior problems seen in shelter dogs can be divided into four types, according to The Association of Shelter Vets Guidelines for Shelter Standards1 and Maddie’s Fund: Behavior Problems and Long Term Housing2.
Here are common shelter behavior types that dogs may exhibit.
FOUR TYPES OF SHELTER DOG BEHAVIOR1
1. Behavior problems correlated with relinquishment to animal shelters:
2. 'Adoption Buster' behavior problems
These are problems associated with dogs being passed over by potential adopters, once in a shelter:
- Aggression towards people and/or dogs
- Aggression towards dogs
- Kennel or barrier displaying
- Jumpiness and mouthiness in initial meeting
3. Separation anxiety
This is not necessarily caused by shelter relinquishment - any time a dog changes owners, the risk of him developing separation anxiety goes up.
4. Kennel environment problems
- Barrier-related barking
- Barrier-related aggression
- Housetraining regression
- Social hyper-arousal
SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS TO ADDRESS BEHAVIORS1
The rehoming experience, especially through an animal shelter, can cause or exacerbate existing behavior problems, and the shelter experience itself then negatively impacts the dogs’ adoptability and increases the likelihood of future relinquishment.
The goal is to help an animal become more adoptable and work on ways to alleviate the behavior, or minimize it. Here are ways that can help:
- Environmental enrichment to alleviate general distress during the dog's shelter stay. These efforts can include: walks, clicker and/or obedience training, group or pairs housing and/or regular dog-dog free play,
- Effective intervention when separation anxiety develops. This requires good knowledge of systematic desensitization and pharmacological intervention on the part of shelter staff and veterinarians and management/support options for owners during the course of treatment.
- Adoption counseling. Thoroughly briefing adopters on do's and don't's about the early weeks and months with their newly adopted dog, as well as supplying ongoing support to adopters in order to diagnose and address separation anxiety early on. For instance, it is imperative to avoid smothering new dogs with attention their first few days home
- Dog behavior education. Aggressive community outreach to dog owners and the general public who may one day be dog owners, with good, catchy information on management, behavior and training (including home-alone training).
Barrier-Related Barking and Aggression
- Preventing visual access to corridor to dogs prone to in-kennel display or, possibly, to all dogs in kennel (this needs research), or
- Counterconditioning a competing emotional response as people walk past the dog's kennel. The easiest practice is to use part of the dog's daily meal ration. The dog's food is stored conveniently near his kennel - any person grabs a few pieces before passing by and delivers them to the dog on his/her way by. The food elicits eating behavior, which prevents lunging, barking and aggression.
Dogs adopted out from animal shelters will often lapse in their housetraining following their stay in the shelter. A few different measures might address this concern:
- In-shelter crate training. David Tuber (who audio-taped hundreds of dogs home alone) found that if shelter dogs were gradually acclimated, over several days at the shelter, to staying in a large, airline crate and then sent home with that crate and instructions on its proper use, the likelihood of the person keeping the dog was greatly increased. Crates can become associated with comfort and safety during a dog's stay in a noisy, drafty kennel.
- Prioritizing housetraining at animal shelters. Dogs would need to be walked at least three to four times per day and possibly crated if they were not holding their bladders in their kennels. An alternative would be foster-care for dogs suspected of not being. housetrained. Certain foster homes might specialize in adult house-training.
- Post-adoption support. Not only should adopters leave with solid information on what to expect and how to train their new dog, they must know there is a safety net should they feel overwhelmed.
This includes compulsive behaviors in the form of pacing, circling, bouncing off walls and self-directed behavior and, at best, over-excitement on occasions when the dog gets social contact. This behavior is off-putting to potential adopters who are likely to label a dog 'hyperactive' or unmanageable rather than see the dog's behavior as driven partly by the abnormal context.
- Group housing, pairs housing and regular dog play groups. It is hard to overestimate the value of free dog interaction, both from the standpoint of development of social skills (with resulting lowered risk of dog-dog fear or aggression problems) and environmental complexity.
- Time spent with shelter dogs that is just an in-kennel visit (i.e. simple, low-key hanging out with dog) rather than 'action' oriented. Kennel runs could be provided with seating to make them more human-friendly. Books or magazines could be on-hand to promote inactive human presence.
- Regular training. This teaches the dog specifically how to behave in a visit-to-kennel situation as well as providing much-needed problem solving (training, if reward-oriented is extremely enjoyable to most dogs). Even when dogs master basic obedience, there is no limit to what they can be taught with techniques like clicker training– and it gives the dog a sense of partial control over his stress-filled environment.
Managing behavioral problems in the shelter environment can be a stepping stone—or a lifeline for these animals. By helping them work through issues, they have a greater chance of being adopted, and staying in their new forever home.
WHEN CARING TOO MUCH TURNS INTO COMPASSION FATIGUE
“You can’t save them all.”
That is one of the mantras that categorizes the despair when things get overwhelming in the animal care community. This is where compassion fatigue can seep in and take hold, with symptoms that can cover a wide spectrum, and can often be categorized as either physical, emotional, or behavioral in nature.
Compassion fatigue has been defined as “the emotional burden that health care providers may experience as a result of overexposure to traumatic events that patients are experiencing”. An earlier term used to describe this phenomenon was “secondary victimization”.1
People who work in the animal care giver world have an over-abundancy of compassion and end up getting frustrated and disheartened that they can't fix everything. An example would be that client that has to euthanize or surrender their pet because they don't have the funds to pay for the surgery or medical treatment.
Veterinarians and veterinary technicians, along with other animal health care professionals, may experience compassion fatigue because of continued exposure to the traumatic events their patients and families experience. Also called secondary traumatic stress (STS) or vicarious traumatization, the result can be a falling off in professional capabilities, emotional exhaustion, distress and burnout.1 This phenomenon is also experienced by non-professional care-givers and volunteers.
As caregivers in shelters and rescues, you may experience the following symptoms occasionally, but if they’re chronic, intense, and interfere with normal daily functioning, they may indicate you have compassion fatigue.
Psychological and Physical Problems
Feelings of apathy top the list of symptoms of compassion fatigue. But they are not the only symptoms, as this insidious disorder can cause problems both psychological and physical.
Top 5 common symptoms can include:
- Sadness and apathy
- Bottled-up emotions
- Inability to get pleasure from activities that previously were enjoyable
- Difficulty concentrating
Shelter veterinarians are at high risk for developing depression, and many spay-neuter veterinarians possess demographic risk factors that may place them at greater risk than other veterinarians for experiencing depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, or suicidal ideation.1 Per the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ 2016 Veterinary Medical Care Guidelines for Spay-Neuter Programs, workplaces should strive to create a safe, supportive environment in which mental health issues are not stigmatized.
“I truly believe many are not suffering from a lack of compassion, but rather the opposite: over-the-top compassion which can take the energy out of someone. What we really need is balance and a way to re-energize after a day/week/month filled with concentrating on the needs of others (patients and their owners),” stated Dr. Kristy Earley-Murray, DVM, who works with Zoetis to bring educational support in the field of veterinary medicine with a special focus on shelter medicine, immunology, dermatology, and senior wellness care.
What Can You Do?
It can be important to connect with colleagues who experience the same types of traumas and moral stresses as you do. There also are personal approaches that can help alleviate compassion fatigue.
- Focus on building your resilience. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cites four areas that are key:
- Adequate sleep
- Good nutrition
- Regular physical activity
- Active relaxation such as yoga or meditation
- Engage in meditation and/or mindfulness-based stress reduction. For example, try this simple breathing exercise to increase physical and mental well-being, demonstrated at the 2016 AVMA Convention by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.2
- Engage with co-workers to celebrate successes as a group.
- Connect with other colleagues, either in person or through online discussions, for shared support that can remind you that you aren’t alone. The AVMA Member Discussion Forum, for example, includes a forum on Work-Life Balance & Wellness.3
- Wash up before you leave work – even just your hands and face. 'Think of it as a symbolic ‘washing away’ of the hardness of the day,' SAMHSA advises.
The American Veterinary Medical Association4 also maintains a useful database of all kinds of wellness resources that is a good place for concerned individuals to start.
Healing takes time, patience, and most importantly, commitment within your rescue or shelter. An awareness of compassion fatigue and its far-reaching effects must be present at the highest level of management and work its way down to encompass all staff, as well as volunteers.
SENIOR SHELTER AND RESCUE PETS
I wrote this article from the perspective of both a veterinarian and former shelter worker. In fact, I would like to dedicate this piece to the countless senior pets that find themselves at shelters across the nation every single day.
One particular dog that stands out in my mind, even after twenty years was a sweet girl named “Star”. Star was a geriatric lab cross-surrendered to the shelter by her owner. Sadly, Star had passed away in her kennel the very night she was relinquished. Perhaps she was ill and her owners could not afford medical care, I hope she passed peacefully…I will never know.
Senior Pets Need Advocates for Their Care
At the end of the day, there are thousands of senior pets like Star that need your help when they are left in your care. They need you to advocate for their wellness and adoptability! Everyone knows puppies are the very first to be selected for adoption. Unfortunately, seniors are often the last. During my years as a shelter employee I’ve heard it all:
- “He/she is too old to train”
- “I don’t want to get attached and have him/her die”
- “I want a healthy dog/cat”
- “I have children” and the list goes on
Because of all of the misconceptions and pre-conceived notions, it’s challenging to place this group of special needs companions, especially when the decks are stacked against them to begin with.
How Can You Help Out This Sweet Group of Adoptable Pets?
I believe it starts the moment they arrive in the shelter. Be sure to give senior pets a very thorough physical examination:
- Does he/she have cloudy eyes?
- Can he/she hear?
- What do his/her teeth look like?
- Are are there any lumps or bumps that should be noted?
- Does this pet appear extra stressed/fearful?
By paying close attention on arrival you will be able to tailor your support for this pet while they are under your care.
As you may imagine, senior pets often suffer from common ailments such as hearing and vision loss, osteoarthritis, dental disease, metabolic disease such as diabetes, cognitive changes and cancer to name a few.
The good news is by being aware of some of these things up front you can be on the lookout for things like increased thirst, increased urination, difficulty chewing, and decreased response to sound or visual stimulation.
When specific concerns are identified, such as osteoarthritis, these pets should receive extra care such as padded bedding, rugs on kennel floors to aid in traction and increase mobility, physical therapy and perhaps medical treatment with NSAIDS or neutraceuticals.
Eating and Drinking Habits
Taking note of eating and drinking habits is critical in uncovering potential medical conditions. If a pet is diabetic or has dental disease, these conditions should be identified and managed before placement. The last thing anyone wants is a senior pet to be returned due to an unknown medical disorder. If ailments are identified in advance the potential adopter can be educated on their new pet’s condition and instructed how to manage it.
Exposure to Infection
It’s also essential to consider exposure to infection in this group of residents. Often time respiratory disease is circulating in many shelters and difficult to control once it takes hold. Elderly pets may have co-morbidities and additional stressors going on and thus potential to become more severely affected if they are exposed to one or several pathogens. Perhaps, kennel staff may take special care to: lower stress, completely dry the kennel after cleaning, and even considering placement into foster care to help mitigate the risk of infection.
Old Dogs and Cats Can Learn New Tricks
Lastly, it is my personal and perhaps biased belief that old dogs/cats can indeed learn new tricks! Potential adopters may just need a gentle ‘nudge’ and reminder. Puppies/kittens often times require lot of time and energy (if not more) to train than mature adults. Often destructive chewing is a reason for return of young adults post adoption, likely this will not be a problem with a sweet old soul!
Wellness education begins on or before adoption day. Tools and resources to help families care for their pets well into old age are critical. When unfortunate circumstances arise (as they often do) and a senior pet is surrendered, it is very helpful if that pet has been cared for appropriately up to the point of surrender. Education on diet, oral health, behavior, and preventative care is essential! Please join me in advocating for all of the senior pets that need our support and help with placement into their forever homes.
It was a borrowed party bus full of animals.
A vehicle normally reserved for revelry was packed with shelter and rescue animals that were helpless to escape the flood waters in Louisiana this past August. Michelle Ingram, Director of Zeus’ Rescues and owner of Zeus’ Place boarding and grooming in New Orleans, sprang into action when many of the rescue centers in the area were going underwater. The lives of hundreds of animals were in danger.
“Twenty-four injured animals were transported and brought back to local veterinarians’ offices to be treated. The flood waters came so fast that some shelters were unable to do anything else in such a short amount of time. Rescue centers were opening the kennel doors and letting dogs and cats swim for their lives,” said Kellie Grengs, grant director and volunteer for Zeus’ Rescues. The boarding and grooming services help to fund the rescue side of the organization, covering the medical expenses and care for abandoned pets looking for forever homes from all across Louisiana.
After eight days of rescue trips, local volunteers were able to convene and help, so Michelle then headed back home to New Orleans. Zeus’ Place took in more than 250 animals from the Baton Rouge area, many of them needing medical care.
Hurricane Katrina changed the way animals are treated during emergencies thanks to the passage of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards in 2006. It was an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to ensure that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.1 Congress compelled first responders to save pets just as they save people.
For example, Zeus’ Place has a policy for all animals boarding at their facility during hurricane season. They evacuate all pets regardless of the category of the hurricane, even if the hurricane may pass quickly, since they could be without power and potable water for a long period of time.2
Veterinary Protocol In Emergency Situations
I spoke with Brian A. DiGangi, DVM, MS, DABVP, Clinical Associate Professor of Shelter Medicine with the University of Florida, Veterinary Community Outreach Program about emergency response protocol:
Q. What determines a situation where you would evacuate animals?
A. Any time that people are being evacuated from an area impacted by a disaster, consideration should be given to evacuating the animals as well. In fact, the law requires communities to have a plan for the care of pets whose owners have been forced to leave their own homes. Shelters should also have an evacuation plan in place for both natural and man-made disasters.
Fires and floods are some of the more common reasons why a shelter might need to relocate its animals, but any time there is the threat of physical damage to animal housing areas or the possibility of an extended period without electricity, it should be considered.
Q. What is your protocol for helping shelter and rescues?
A. The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is a lead member of the Florida State Agriculture Response Team. As such, our Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS) is occasionally called to assist in response to a natural or man-made disaster that impacts animals. In addition, the VETS team is ready to deploy whenever an emergency has been officially declared by the state or federal government.
The AVMA’s Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) serve as first responders to ensure high-quality care of animals during disasters and other emergencies. When requested by a state, VMATs provide operational emergency response programs to state animal health authorities and preparedness programs to state animal health authorities, veterinary medical associations, and other relevant organizations.
For over 20 years, dedicated volunteers who work with the VMAT program help ensure that all animals - pets, livestock, zoo animals and wildlife - receive the care they need during times of crisis.3 These trained disaster teams are well-equipped to handle almost any animal-related emergency that can arise.
But we must not forget the other selfless acts to save animals from harm’s way that are seldom heard of, but quietly out there, like the work of Michelle Ingram---along with shelter and rescue volunteers, pet foster families, and pet parents all across the country.