A shelter facility designed with animal health and welfare at the core can be transformative not only to the animals housed there but also to the people who care for them and to the communities they serve. At best most organizations get one opportunity every 20, 30, or more years to build a new sheltering facility; therefore, it is imperative that the design be right. If you start with this information sheet you will be well on your way.
Before you build: defining goals and gathering information
Addressing the numbers
Components of the shelter facility
Non-animal housing areas
Strategies for noise control
Plumbing and drainage
The primary enclosure
Re-evaluating the basics: what do animals need in primary enclosures?
Elements of single animal housing
Cost effective solutions for individual cat housing
Elements of group housing
Cats: group housing
Dogs: group housing
Considerations for “out of cage” time
The shelter facility and the housing it provides have implications far beyond the shelter walls. The design of the facility will impact disease levels, behavioral health, staffing needs and the daily cost of care (and therefore how much time and money is left over for other important programs). Although excellent husbandry can make up for some deficiencies, a poorly designed facility exacts a daily toll on staff and animals, increasing stress and illness.
A well designed facility, on the other hand, provides for animal health and wellness with maximum efficiency. It also allows for flexibility in meeting the changing needs of a community and the evolving mission of an organization. It allows for successful response to disasters and outbreaks as well as new opportunities such as foster, transfer, treatment or educational programs. Both the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and University of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine Program now offer facility design consultation if you would like customized guidance for your organization. Otherwise, read on for more information!
Early in the process of considering a new or expanded facility, carefully articulate the goals for the project. Consider current and future trends. A good way to start is simply by brainstorming the reasons for the new building. Is the hope that animals will be healthier and more comfortable? That the new building will be more efficient and easier to keep clean? That facilities will exist to provide education for the community or shelter staff? Are there special populations that are not provided for by the current building design, such as puppies and kittens, sick animals, or mothers and neonates awaiting foster care? Are shelter or rescue transfers anticipated, either as a receiving or source shelter? These are just some examples – of course each shelter's list will be different based on philosophy, resources and challenges inherent to that particular community.
Once a list of goals has been established, choose the top priorities. Each possible investment in the new facility should be consciously considered in light of how it will benefit the highest priority goals. If it turns out you cannot have it all, will additional adoption housing serve the shelter's goals better than an area for animals awaiting foster care or rescue or a new treatment area? Is a big, impressive lobby or retail area worth a trade-off of fewer units of animal housing? The answers will vary depending on your current challenges and opportunities.
The important thing is to make sure your plan truly matches your priorities. Sometimes shelters are built or expanded with the idea that simply increasing the number of animals housed and making the environment more appealing on the surface will lead to great gains in saving lives. However, more space for animal housing and even a nicer looking shelter will not necessarily reduce euthanasia. Extra cages quickly fill and a more appealing facility sometimes leads to higher intake as well as higher adoptions. The bottom line is that if quality and efficiency of the space is not improved, the results of even an enormous investment in facility expansion are likely to be disappointing.
Before you build, you will need a good handle on the optimal number of animals to house at any given time. The daily shelter population determines overall operational costs and staff time for care, and has a profound impact on the average length of stay (LOS) for each animal.
In an undersized shelter animals must be either chronically crowded together, denied admission or euthanized for want of space. Increased disease, endless stress for humans and animals alike, and reduced chances for live release will be the nearly inevitable results over the long haul. Though it may be less intuitively obvious, too large a shelter can be equally problematic – trying to build your way out of community overpopulation is not only likely to be ineffective, it can be seriously counterproductive. An over-sized facility results in elevated care costs and needlessly prolonged lengths of stay. Long stays in turn increase risk for disease and behavioral problems, further increasing costs and daily care requirements. In the worst case scenario, an overstretched group of staff and volunteers dash around madly trying to keep up with cleaning and care and become less and less able to serve the public or do a good job at just about anything. Again the nearly inevitable result is disease, stress and reduced live release. It’s important to get the number right!
Calculating optimal shelter capacity is a multi-step process which can take a little time but is well worth the investment. Calculations need to take into account seasonal variation, species specific trends, intake levels and required/optimal holding times. A detailed explanation can be found in the “Calculating Shelter Capacity” information sheet.
If you would like personalized help, feel free to contact the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program (firstname.lastname@example.org) or University of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine Program (email@example.com) about our consulting services.
Multiple smaller animal housing areas rather than fewer larger housing areas are ideal in most shelters to allow for flexibility in segregating different groups with different needs. Populations to house separately include:
Depending on the shelter, other desirable special housing areas include:
In all these areas, segregation by species should be maintained. Uses of various segregation areas should be flexible to accommodate changes in housing needs over time. For instance, during the summer one area might be used as a nursery for queens and kittens awaiting foster care, while at another time this same area might house a group of cats surrendered from a hoarding case. Due to this need for flexibility, make sure most of your housing is easily cleaned to accommodate newly admitted animals but can also provide humane accommodations for medium to long-term housing, just in case that is what it ends up getting used for.
An exhaustive list of additional shelter areas is beyond the scope of this document. Areas to consider include, but are by no means limited to, animal areas such as intake, treatment, surgery, euthanasia, behavioral evaluation, food preparation, laundry, grooming, and indoor and outdoor play spaces for dogs, cats and other species.
While some areas, such as laundry and grooming, can be doubled up, some areas cannot be safely combined. It is especially important to make sure there’s absolutely no cross over between intake areas and sick animal treatment/euthanasia areas. Of equal importance are people areas, such as a welcoming reception/adoption area, get-acquainted areas, and a break room for staff and volunteers.
Areas for training, conferences and meetings serve not only the shelter, but the whole surrounding community. With proper planning, these can also serve as temporary housing areas in the event of a serious disaster.
Controlling noise in a shelter is important for the well-being of visitors, volunteers and staff as well as the animals. For cats, perhaps the most important noise to avoid is the sound of barking dogs.
It is not surprising that visual and auditory exposure to dogs is a significant stressor for confined cats 1. Even one or two dogs present in the environment can have a significant impact. In the figures below (decibels levels are along the Y axis, time along X axis-and each represents 1 week of noise levels), the picture on the left depicts the sound measurements during a week when two small dogs were housed in a cat building. Noise levels routinely exceeded 80 decibels during a large portion of each day. In the picture on the right, both dogs were removed from the cat building at the time point indicated by the green arrow. Following their removal, noise levels dropped and remained below 80 decibels for much of each of the following days (the sharp noise spikes that continue to be seen occur during each days cleaning time).
Dog noise is not the only noise to be concerned about in cat housing areas; any sudden or loud noises can cause stress and adversely affect cat health and well-being. In an unpublished study examining sound levels in cat intake housing areas and URI rates in 5 California shelters, the lowest URI rates occurred in a shelter with the lowest noise levels (10-100 fold quieter than the other 4 shelters).
Dog kennels should also be designed to minimize noise, for example by reducing the number of dogs housed per ward, using solid enclosures (e.g. real life type rooms with outdoor access for elimination), providing in-kennel enrichment, providing out of kennel time, and planning traffic flow so that dogs are not exposed to a constant parade of dogs and people walking by.
Preventing all visual access to other dogs may be necessary for a few individual dogs that are overstimulated by the presence of others, but in general it is neither an effective nor necessary means to decrease barking in dog kennels. In fact one study found that visual exposure to other dogs not only did not increase barking2, it encouraged dogs to stay near the front of their kennels which may encourage adoption3.
For all species also consider the impact of cage design and materials on noise levels. For instance, different types of latch closure for cat cages vary greatly in the amount of noise they make each time a cage door closes. Metal on metal noise can be extremely loud with typical opening of metal cage doors reaching 90+ decibels. Some new stainless steel cages come with quieter, replaceable plastic latches. In some cases older metal latches can be replaced with plastic ones – check with your cage manufacturer for availability. Consider this when investing in new cages.
Plastic latches help quiet metal cage
Cage material also has a great impact – stainless steel, for all its shiny virtues, is clang-y and resonant. All the cleanliness in the world may not avail if the banging of steel doors disrupts sleep and induces stress to the point that animals’ immune systems are compromised. If stainless steel or other noisy material is used, towels and furniture in the cages can help dampen the effect, as can careful attention to minimizing noise during daily caretaking. Noise dampening panels are available for stainless steel cages for only a few dollars each.
Noise dampening panels on a steel cage.
Cleaning time is a noisy time in most shelters. Educate staff and caretakers to reduce noise during cleaning. Ensuring doors are closed between animal housing areas can help reduce noise levels. A gate or cage door that is closed with care can be much quieter than one closed without thought – making a noise that is startling to even the most social and adjusted shelter animals.
Air exchanges of 10-12 per hour are often recommended for animal housing areas, but the number of necessary air exchanges depends greatly on animal density and level of contaminants (e.g. litter dust, cleaning chemicals, etc.). For instance, just a two-fold increase in density can necessitate a 10-fold increase in air flow in some animal housing environments.
It is normal for shelters to occasionally smell like the animals they contain, but a persistent, noticeable odor of animal waste or cleaning chemicals can be a sign of inadequate air exchange, as can be respiratory irritation for staff during cleaning or frequent respiratory disease requiring treatment of animals.
Even if air exchange within a room is perfectly fine, the air quality within a housing unit may be poor. This is especially true of small cages enclosed on all but one side (e.g. typical single cat cages). Make sure cages are designed to take advantages of air exchange in the environment. Unless cages are individually actively ventilated, at least 1.5 walls of the enclosure should permit easy air flow (e.g. cage bars or Plexiglas with extensive vent-holes on the front and upper rear half of the cage).
Airborne disease is not a major issue for cats [14,15], but can be a significant means of disease transmission for dogs. While individual ventilation for dog runs is not necessary except for fully enclosed runs or real life type rooms, separate air flow should be maintained to canine isolation areas versus those housing healthy dogs. If offensive odors are noticeable either within enclosures or in animal housing areas in general, or respiratory irritation is reported by staff or visitors, air quality needs to be improved.
To avoid the necessity of mopping, any area requiring routine disinfection, such as animal housing areas, get-acquainted rooms, and indoor play areas, should be designed with drains. At minimum this is a requirement for all dog housing areas. Although passionate arguments are made either way, there is no documented association between drain type (individual vs. trench) and level of disease. It is possible to adequately control disease in shelters with either drain type, provided that drains are well designed, appropriately placed, adequately cleaned, and properly functioning. Conversely, drains of either type that are difficult to clean or that are accessible to animals can transmit disease. Never place drains in walkway areas.
For human as well as animal health, sinks should ideally be present in all animal housing areas. At minimum, they need to be provided in intake, treatment, surgery, euthanasia, and of course food preparation areas. Hand sanitizers should also be provided in all animal housing areas and anywhere else animals are routinely handled.
The type of housing encountered in a shelter is arguably the single most important factor in determining the quality of an animal’s experience in that environment. Housing impacts the animal 24 hours a day and affects everything from stress level and disease risk to food intake and sleep quality. Good quality housing must meet several criteria:
In a shelter environment, housing must also facilitate the main functions of the shelter, which often includes reclaim, rescue or adoption of animals. Therefore, housing must not only protect animals from disease exposure and stress, it must simultaneously present animals for viewing to be recognized and reclaimed by owners or selected for adoption. Sometimes this leads to apparently conflicting goals: housing that is welcoming to adopters and volunteers may not facilitate easy disinfection or may subject animals to relatively high stress levels. However, if animals get sick or unduly stressed they are less likely to be adopted. Ultimately, a balance must be struck that meets the needs of animals, staff and adopters.
For decades, cages and kennels have been produced with little regard to even the most basic needs of animals. This has been especially true for cats. Feline intake housing, where cats spend the crucial first days in shelter care, often consists of a single-compartment cage, approximately 24” wide by 28” deep by 24” high. With a food and water dish and litter pan placed in the cage, there is no room for an adult cat even to lay down with its body fully extended, let alone walk a few steps, stretch, or express virtually any other normal feline behavior.
The litter box has been overturned, leaving the top of the hiding box the only place to retreat from the mess.
With litter and food in place the floor area is insufficient to allow virtually any normal behavior or posture other than the cramped position this cat has assumed.
Provision of a hiding place, a crucial tool to relieve stress in animals, results in an even more cramped environment. Contamination of food and water by adjacent litter and feces is common and usually unavoidable. These cages are difficult to clean on a daily basis without direct handling of animals, which in turn results in stress and extensive opportunities for disease transmission via fomites. Housing in this type of cage has even been linked to increased risk of euthanasia and decreased likelihood of adoption when compared to more enriched housing4.
Canine housing is often not as cramped as feline housing, but still not infrequently fails to meet dogs’ basic needs. Because dogs do not contain their excrement to a litter pan as cats do, providing dogs with the opportunity to defecate and urinate away from their eating and sleeping area is crucial both for mental well-being of some dogs and to promote the house-broken behavior that virtually every adopter would prefer.
Even with the best intentions for frequent walking, it is likely that some dogs in a shelter will be confined for sufficiently long periods that they will need to eliminate in their run, and should have the choice of doing so in a way that does not soil their living quarters. This requires a run that is sufficiently large and ideally clearly segregated (e.g. double sided, preferably with one half having access to the outdoors).
This chart shows the strong preference of dogs to urinate and defecate away from their resting and eating area, even if they are not already housebroken. The first tall column (70%) indicates the percentage of time dogs had feces on the side away from where their bed/food was located. The second tall column( 68%) indicates the percentage of time dogs had urine on the side away from where their bed/food was located (read the full study at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0096254 ).
Double sided or otherwise compartmentalized runs are also critical to permit cleaning and disinfection of recently admitted or sick dogs. All the benefit of daily cleaning will be undermined if dogs must be transferred to a common area and walked down common hallways and/or exposed to the hands, arms, and clothing of caretakers in the process.
This cute puppy is exposed to all the germs that have accumulated in this hallway as he is transferred from one single run to another during cleaning.
This cheerful Labrador mix can remain safely contained on one side of his run during cleaning, separated from the other half by closing the guillotine door. This type of housing provides for separation of feeding and elimination areas and affords a greater degree of environmental control for the dog compared to a cage, single-sided run or small room.
It is helpful to take a step back and look at what animals really need, rather than what we have been accustomed to providing. Adequately sized, enriched individual housing is generally the method of choice for housing newly admitted animals, juveniles (or litters), animals requiring close monitoring for health or behavior, and any animal not previously socialized to other animals. The desired characteristics of individual animal enclosures are described below; keep in mind that for long term housed animals, alternatives to traditional cage housing are necessary to provide for adequate welfare5.
A cat perches on a bed with a towel draped over it in a small cage. This provides both an elevated resting place and a place for concealment with minimal impact on floor space. For more information on how to make this bed, see our information sheet on Building an elevated bed for use in shelter cat housing.
A custom cage cover has been made to allow the cat a choice of concealment or exposure to her surroundings.
Homemade cage covers aka ‘curtailments’ can be placed on the cage without disturbing the cat inside and simply washed between uses. They have elastic in the top so they can cover more or less of the cage depending on the cat’s needs. To learn how to make these, please refer to our information sheet How to make partial cage covers aka “CURTAILMENTS”
|A terrified little dog crouches under its bed, the only hiding place available||A little dog chooses to use the outside half of his run to keep a wary eye on visitors. This dog shyly approached visitors with encouragement and ended up being a friendly pet.|
|High sided beds or crates provide great hiding places and choice for dogs in their kennels.|
This cat room has a human door and a cat door to an outside porch area creating wonderful indoor/outdoor housing.
|Individual cat housing in a room large enough to permit entry for daily care needs.||The outdoor (porch) area of a similar housing unit. Both the indoor and the outdoor areas have a human door for entry, cleaning and care needs.|
Although converting or replacing poor cat housing represents an initial investment, over time this will likely be more than repaid in decreased cost of illness and care. Poor housing has been specifically linked to increased risk of upper respiratory infection (URI) and euthanasia in animals4.
Each case of URI can cost an estimated $200-$400 (including daily cost of housing and care). When a cat is euthanized rather than adopted, not only is a life lost, but also the opportunity to recover adoption and service fees is missed, resulting in increased overall cost to the shelter.
Double compartment or walk-in housing results in daily time savings during routine care procedures as it requires little to no animal handling and makes cleaning and feeding easier. Providing quality housing makes financial as well as ethical sense.
In case of severe financial constraints, gradual changes can be made, with a priority on intake housing and housing for kittens (as these populations are most vulnerable to infection). Lower cost materials may also be considered. While stainless steel is often considered the material of choice for its durability and ease of disinfection, it is also cold, reflective, noisy and has historically been available in a limited range of sizes and configurations.
A cage or condo that meets more of the animals’ behavioral needs and facilitates easy day-to-day care may result in lower disease rates and higher adoption rates even if made with a theoretically less “disinfectable” material such as laminate, fiberglass or plastic. Combine this with a disinfectant with good penetration and activity in the face of organic matter and disease transmission concerns are further minimized.
Additional cost effective options include pre-built shower stalls or retrofitting existing cages by addition of a portal. This can be accomplished in cages of virtually any material (including steel and fiberglass) for ~$100 per cage depending on the cost of labor. For more information, see our information sheets on Portal Instruction for Installation and Making Double Compartment Cat Cages using a PVC Portal.
|A pre-fabricated shower stall has been outfitted with shelves to provide additionally functional elevated space.||Two stainless steel cages have been joined via a portal to provide more adequate space and functional separation of food/water and litter.|
Group housing has been utilized to address some of the deficiencies associated with traditional individual housing. It is easier to provide animals behavioral choices, such as jumping, running, and hiding in a group housed setting. Caretakers can enter group cat rooms to tidy up, feed and care for the animals with minimal disruption and without having to directly handle animals, and adopters can interact with the animals in a more home-like environment. Group dog housing affords social dogs with opportunities for play and social interaction as well as offering an overall larger space.
However, group housing has some potentially serious downsides. Disease control within the group is not possible, making this an appropriate choice only for animals known to be in good health and protected by vaccination. Even so, transmission of sub-clinical infections can be a problem. Additionally, monitoring of individual health or behavior is challenging and some problems can go undetected until serious health and welfare issues have developed.
For dogs, adopters may be reluctant to break up a pair that seems to get along yet be unable to add two pets to their lives, leading to prolonged time to adoption for pair or group housed dogs (if this is an issue, it can be solved by housing dogs singly during open hours, and pairing them at other times for dog-dog socialization).
Perhaps most importantly, group housing can create intense, unrelieved stress for some animals, increasing their risk for disease, reducing their chance of adoption, and making their daily life miserable. Because animals must use space rather than physical barriers to prevent conflict in group settings, more rather than fewer square feet per animal are required in group compared to individual housing to prevent unacceptable stress levels.
For animals that have not been previously socialized to other members of their species, group housing is likely to be a constant stressor, and addition of non-social animals to a group can elevate the stress levels of the resident animals as well14. The transient nature of most shelter environments exacerbates the problems with group housing: we routinely counsel clients to give newly adopted and resident animals plenty of time for a gradual introduction, yet in shelter group housing several animals a day may be abruptly removed and added. This leads to constant social stress and readjustment, not to mention risk for introduction of disease. In cats specifically, addition of new cats to a group has been shown to be a powerful activator of feline herpesvirus, leading to reactivation of this infection even in cats negative after two steroid treatments15.
Group housing should be used with care, as an enrichment for animals after individual evaluation, and some individual housing should always be available for animals requiring closer monitoring or who do not do well in a group.
Quality group housing should have the same characteristics as enriched single housing, with these additional considerations--
All group housed animals:
Even when housing quality is good, it’s often beneficial to provide animals with enrichment areas outside of their cages or kennels for exercise, play and interaction. This becomes even more urgent when cages are small and/or length of stay extends beyond a week or two. Areas for out-of-cage time should be incorporated into a shelter design plan and can often be retrofitted into an existing structure.
For cats, out-of-cage areas can include sufficiently large enclosures within a room, outdoor areas enclosed by one means or another (e.g. cat fencing), and/or designated rooms (sometimes a get-acquainted room can function as an enrichment area when the shelter is closed to the public).
Most dogs enjoy outdoor play areas and walking trails, but dogs also benefit from quiet out of cage time in a more home-like indoor setting. Consider that many adopters want a dog that will mostly hang out with them in the house, quietly by their side as they go about their day. Allowing dogs to practice quiet indoor behavior while a friendly volunteer or staff member reads a book or watches TV can enhance their chances for adoption as well as providing a welcome break from the noise and activity of the kennel.
Ideally, construct and furnish enrichment areas such that they can be easily disinfected. With newer disinfectants such as Accel (accelerated hydrogen peroxide), a variety of materials can be used and effectively decontaminated, but keep the area uncluttered and avoid nooks and crannies that are hard to reach. If structures for out-of-cage time such as play towers are placed within cat rooms, ideally place them at least 5 feet from the front of cages to prevent droplet transmission of disease.
For cats especially, make sure there is some part of the out-of-cage area that offers protection from visual exposure – for instance the play tower in the picture below is well-positioned away from the front of cages but would benefit from having one corner covered with a solid visual barrier.
Use of enrichment areas
Although this is not exactly on the subject of facility design, we will address the use of enrichment areas here since we have gone and brought up the subject. This applies to general use of indoor and outdoor enrichment areas – play groups as a form of enrichment for dogs are a separate subject unto themselves. In order to protect animal health and ensure that out-of-cage time relieves stress and enhances wellness, there are some caveats to consider.
Screening - a few steps to limit risk:
Health history - provide in-cage enrichment instead of out-of-cage time for animals with risky health histories, such as:
Age and vaccine history - consider before placing in enrichment areas:
Finally, a word about the big picture. However nice the housing at the shelter, the number of kindly staff and volunteers and the degree of enrichment, the ideal outcome for shelter animals is a home of their own. Housing and enrichment should enhance each animal’s chances for adoption, never detract. This includes making sure that length of stay (LOS) is not unnecessarily prolonged. Sensible precautions as described above will minimize the chance of animals becoming sick as a result of out-of-cage time and therefore staying longer, negating the purpose of enrichment. Also be aware of the impact on staff time. If staff hours are very limited, such that spending time moving animals in and out of enrichment areas detracts from activities needed to move animals swiftly through the shelter and out to homes, invest in building a volunteer pool or increasing staff hours to accomplish this activity.
Too often, animal housing in shelters and veterinary clinics has been built without full consideration of the basic needs of animals or the practical implications for daily care. By paying attention to this important aspect of care for confined animals, an initial investment can have long term rewards in reduced staff costs, reduced disease, increased adoptions, and most importantly, greater comfort and well-being for every minute an animal is in our care.