The Future is Here: Ten Steps Shelters Can Take Now to Build Better Animal Services

By Kristen Hassen-Auerbach

Kristen Hassen-Auerbach | Dr. Ellen Jefferson | April 16th, 2020

We are long overdue for a massive change in how pets are served in our communities. For many shelters, the impacts of COVID-19 have created organizational changes like a focus on remote services, utilizing foster as the primary method of housing pets, caring for pets in the community and employing existing technologies to get more pets home. These 10 action items, based on lessons learned prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, are the changes that will lead to a whole new world for shelter pets and to a strong emphasis on keeping pets in their communities.

We have also included a list of goals, program ideas, and possible staff positions, as well as infographic to illustrate the changes.


1. Reserve ‘intake’ for only pets who truly and urgently need to be sheltered. 

Pets that truly need sheltering will include sick and injured pets; dogs that pose a public safety threat; animals suffering true cruelty and neglect; as well as stray and owned pets who are otherwise in immediate danger and have no other viable options for temporary placement. 

See NACA's guidelines on essential animal services during COVID-19.

2. Restructure org charts.

Restructure animal services’ organizational structures equally distributed among three functions, which can roughly be described as ‘homes,’ ‘shelter,’ and ‘pet social services’ or ‘One Health pet services.’


3. Define and implement a new range of pet-related services and functions. 

Allocate resources to telehealth and remote services to change public expectations and to define community cultures of collective responsibility for pets and solutions in the community, not in the shelter.

4. Ensure most outcome pathways for pets start prior to intake. 

Create and implement an intake-to-placement system, so most pets who enter the shelter have an outcome pathway through foster, adoption, rescue or return within the first two hours of entering and leave within 72 hours of entering the shelter system.

5. Use existing technologies and social media platforms. 

Employ existing technologies, social media platforms and community partnerships to provide better services for getting stray pets home and rehoming owned pets, incentivizing and empowering owners and finders to be the solution with remote support from animal services agencies.

6. Serve pets and people.

Create or deepen partnerships with local human social service agencies and veterinarians, to provide whole family health and wellness services, in including vaccines, food, and supplies in order to recognize and support pets as family members.

7. Support the human-animal bond.

Define and allocate resources to Keeping Families Together, including support for temporary boarding for pets owned by people in crisis; fence building and repair assistance; medical support for vulnerable pet owners; food and pet supplies for pet owners experiencing homelessness or economic distress; and renter support and resources including pet deposits.

8. House most pets in foster. 

Utilize foster placement as the primary way of housing pets in the custody of the animal services facility, with between 50% and 90% of all pets in custody housed in foster homes. Build foster systems that empower foster caregivers to facilitate and complete adoptions.

9. Build neighborhood programs.

Establish partnerships in high intake zip codes and neighborhoods within those zip codes to help get pets home, connect people to animal support services, and establish a distributed network of places where people can access some basic services including microchip implantation, scanning for chips on found pets, and obtain information about getting stray pets home and rehoming your pet as well as accessing medical services, spay and neuter resources, etc.

10. Keep cats and kittens in the community.

Serve all healthy cats and kittens in the community, limiting intake to sick and injured cats and kittens and orphaned kittens who are in immediate danger and cannot be cared for by their mother or a foster-on-deck. 

Have questions about kittens? Join our Preparing Neonates Live Q&A webinar.

Set Goals:

  • Reduce the number of pets entering the shelter system by 50% or more
  • Reduce the capacity of local pets housed in the shelter by 50% or more
  • Fulfill needs resulting in pet retention for 80% of owners who want to keep their pets but face barriers
  • House 50% or more of sheltered pets in foster homes at any given time
  • Provide outcome pathway for all ‘non-essential’ pet intake within 72 hours of entering the shelter system, to reduce the length of stay in a shelter for most pets to three days or fewer

Implement new programs to support these changes:

  • Intake-to-placement
  • High volume foster placement
  • Subsidized/incentivized foster
  • Pets owned by vulnerable people care
  • Community partnerships to build social safety net - vets, human social services agencies
  • Adoption completed by foster
  • Supported self rehoming
  • Getting pets home
  • Intake needs assessment and triage services
  • Keeping families together support
  • Neighborhood dogs and cats
  • Social services for pets
  • Special needs case management
  • Behavioral support for fosters and dog owners
  • Cats served in the community
  • Shelter as an emergency room and crisis response center

Hire new staff or reallocated staff positions to support these changes:

  • Intake to placement manager
  • Getting pets home specialist
  • Self-rehoming support specialist
  • Keeping families together specialist
  • Big dog case manager (foster and sheltered dogs)
  • Foster veterinarian and foster techs
  • Public health nurse and neighborhood specialists
  • Pet support services provider
  • Vulnerable pet owner case manager
  • Pet support phone/telehealth support specialist
  • Community liaison


Back to All Blog Posts
Related blog Posts

6 Tips for Successful Rescue Transports During COVID-19 Read More
The Future of Animal Sheltering: Elements of the Animal Social Services Coalition Model Read More
You Really Should Keep Fostering. Here's Why. Read More
Keeping Families Together: Pet Support at the Shelter During COVID-19 and Beyond Read More