When there is a need for sheltering animals, there are several options – each comes with advantages and disadvantages. Conditions, agency policies, experiences, resources, or timing typically drive the decision as to what type of shelter is used. Regardless of the type of shelter utilized, the primary goal is to provide quality daily care until animals are reunited with their families or rehomed to new families.
Most jurisdictional areas have a minimum hold period for animals brought in as strays – typically 3-5 days. During disasters, the gold standard is 30 days. The response team must make every effort possible to try and reunite the animal with its family. Without exception, no disaster animal should be euthanized simply because of space and, similarly, no shelter animal should be put down to make room for a disaster animal. There are too many other options available and too many groups willing to assist in a disaster for that to happen.
Any time animals are sheltered, a well-organized intake, tracking, and discharge process should be in place to establish accurate record keeping and ensure that animals and families stay together or are eventually reunited.
In an animal-only shelter (AOS), the care of the animal falls completely on the sheltering team. There are a host of reasons why this type of shelter might be needed, including:
- Abandoned animals;
- Unowned animals;
- Owners not able to be located or have perished;
- Owners relinquishing their pets; and
- Owners not able to take care of their pets.
Interestingly, many communities and a number of national groups still prefer this type of sheltering. The sheltering team does not have to deal with family. They can better control the environment and provide the level of care they feel is most appropriate. The staffing ratio for an AOS is approximately 10-15:1 – depending on disposition, responder experience, and type and size of kennel. A 300-animal shelter may require 20-30 responders. Veterinary support is needed either at the shelter, at a nearby facility, or on call.
Unfortunately, an emergency AOS likely ends up with unclaimed animals. Not all pet owners are the same when it comes to the steps they are willing to take to be reunited with their pets. This may lead owners to relinquish their animals to an already overpopulated municipal shelter. Teams should plan on a 5-10% unclaimed rate whenever standing up an AOS (see Green, 2019).
As the name would imply, a co-located shelter (CLS) is a sheltering situation where the family and pets are either in the same building, different rooms, adjacent buildings, or nearby facilities. Responsibility for the care of animals falls on the owners. The sheltering team assists as needed. If done properly, a CLS requires few daily care staff. The approximate staffing ratio for a well-managed CLS is 50-100:1. This suggests that, with a shelter population of 300, three-six individuals should be able to ensure quality of care and that hygiene levels are maintained, equipment and supplies are readily available, and operational protocols are being followed. Veterinary support is usually available on call and at the owner’s request.
Although a CLS may sound like the perfect choice for emergency animal sheltering, they also come with some challenges. People displaced from a disaster may have regular obligations that may limit the amount of time available to care for their animals. They also may not be able to exercise their animals two or more times a day due to work or other commitments. Even with some of the challenges associated with a CLS, it is a much better solution to housing over an AOS. Requiring owners to care for their animals is a win-win situation: the owners are happier and less stressed and emergency management is not struggling to find volunteers to staff the shelter.
In a co-habitated shelter (CHS), owners are housed in the same area as their pets. A section of floor space is assigned to a family and they can configure it however they see fit. A suggested footprint for cohabitation is 180 square feet for a family of four plus two pets. There are rules for containing their animals but, in essence, they stay together as a family unit. If the animal is not suitable for a CHS due to behavior issues, it may be denied access and sent to a CLS. In a mixed shelter, it is advisable to separate the families with pets from the families without pets.
The sheltering team has very little responsibilities. In most cases, depending on the agency in charge, shelter staff remains on call. If veterinary support is needed and not provided by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), then it is the owners’ responsibility to contact and transport animals as needed.
Owners caring for their animals in the same living space may help eliminate the stress and worry associated with their pets since they can check on them anytime. This also allows owners to know when the animals were fed, had exercise, given medications, etc., so the owners understand the wellbeing of the animal. This model may also be beneficial to animals since they are living with their families and are likely to exhibit fewer negative behaviors.
Louisiana Floods, 2016
Louisiana experienced one of the worst floods in its history in 2016. Two feet of rain fell in 48 hours – eventually resulting in 13 deaths and 60,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Very quickly, human and animal shelters were established. Louisiana has had much experience with disasters and has solidified its sheltering process. Interestingly, all three of the sheltering types discussed here were used following the floods at a single facility.
The Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana, quickly became the site for large animals. Many livestock owners brought their camping trailers and parked right next to the stalls they were using. In many cases, they had their pets with them in their trailers and their livestock within feet of them. That was classic CHS.
An animal shelter in Ascension Parish occupied one end of Barn 1. After receiving extensive damage from the flood, that shelter evacuated its animals to Lamar Dixon, where it stood up an AOS.
About 400 yards from the barns was a human shelter run by the American Red Cross, with a CLS situated in the main arena. So, on the grounds of Lamar Dixon were well over 1,300 animals being cared for either by their owners or by responders. The people who had their animals with them gladly welcomed support of food and veterinary care but, for the most part, all they needed was a roof over their heads. The CLS had between 10 and 30 responders caring for animals, where the owners were not caring for their animals properly or they were not able to care for their animals (working, meetings, etc.). The AOS was a never-ending whirlwind of activity with volunteers coming and going at all hours of the day trying to keep up with 100+ parish-owned pets.
In Baton Rouge, a spontaneous CHS appeared at the Celtic Studio 4 as 2,000 people arrived. There was no time and little effort taken to separate families and pets. They just needed a dry place to stay. That became the first state-supported CHS in Louisiana’s history and it worked amazingly well. There were few if any interpersonal issues. In addition, very few incidents required outside animal support. Interestingly, when assessment teams traveled from Lamar Dixon to the Celtic Center, they did not want to go back. It was so quiet and peaceful at the CHS. The only real problem came when the state needed to return the Celtic Center to the owners for an upcoming show. The people without pets simply moved to another shelter. However, the pet-owning families were sent to a CLS, which they were not happy about. Complaints found their way to the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and even to the governor demanding that they be able to stay with their pets.
Key Takeaway From a National-Level Exercise
The bottom line is that a CHS is the gold standard. For the 2016 Cascadia Rising National Level Exercise, it was estimated that at least 50,000 pets would need to be moved from the west side of Washington to the east side if a major earthquake were to hit the Pacific Northwest. The Washington State Department of Agriculture stressed upon the exercise players that traditional sheltering would not work for this many evacuees. The only model that made sense was CHS. The plan that was finally agreed upon was to set up tent camps along the I-90 corridor in state parks. Families with pets would be in one part of the park in the same tent. Walking and playing areas would be established, and the family unit would stay together.
Animals are a huge part of humans’ lives and, in most households across the country, pets are part of the family. Consequently, all emergency plans must address how the community is going to care for people that are evacuating with their pets (PETS Act of 2006). Recent disasters have shown how effective co-habitated shelters (CHS) can be for dealing with large numbers of evacuees. They require little animal supervision, encourage adherence to evacuation orders and compliance with sheltering protocols, and reduce stress. If communities are not in a position to set up a CHS, they should have plans for establishing co-located shelters (CLS). How many of the total shelters will allow pets will be determined by the number of families impacted but, in general, half of all shelters should be pet-friendly.