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Population management 101 (Proceedings)

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Apr 01, 2009

Many shelters are faced with diseases that seem resistant to typical treatment protocols. Not only do individual animals fail to respond to medications but it is also difficult to lower or eliminate disease prevalence in the population. For these reasons it is much more satisfying to focus on disease prevention rather that treatment. Preventative practices save lives and money, improve the lives of the animals in shelter care and even reduce staff stress. Preventative tools include population management, vaccination, sanitation, disease detection, isolation and separation, as well as many others.

Although every one of the preventative practices mentioned above, as well as almost everything that is done to care for shelter animals, could be considered a part of "managing" the population, population management is key in maintaining a healthy population of dogs and cats in shelters. Without at least a rudimentary plan to avoid crowding, shelters can experience constant disease outbreaks even if the other preventative tools are in place. The very basics of a good population management protocol for an individual shelter should include:
1. Its current and historical population dynamics;
2. Its capacity for animal housing and care;
3. Its animal care days and average length of stay;
4. Its co-mingling policies and practices;

Basic Population Management

In general, a shelter population management protocol includes:
  • Shelter Intake and live release rate
  • Housing capacity
  • Animal care days
  • Average length of stay
  • Co-mingling (cage sharing)
  • A daily population monitoring system

Intake to live release disparity

Intake vs. "outtake" disparity is the crux of most shelters' problems. While every effort should be made to improve the number and percentage of animals that will leave the shelter alive, it is essential to monitor the difference between intake and live release in order to effectively manage the shelter population without creating additionally crowded conditions. Ultimately, crowding leads to increases in disease and stress for staff and animals, which may negatively impact the live release rate. It is important to quantify the number of animals that arrive healthy at a shelter against the number that get sick, die or get euthanized due to illness. The disparity between intake and live release may be addressed from the intake side of the equation or by attempting to remove impediments and increase opportunities in the community or elsewhere for positive outcomes.

Increasing live release as well as decreasing intake will positively affect the live release rate. Although holding animals in the shelter does not positively affect the live release rate it may temporarily decrease the euthanasia rate. However, holding animals beyond the capacity of the facility may actually lead to decreases in the live release rate by increasing the incidence of infectious disease and stress induced illness.

Other outcomes, such as lost animals or animals that have died in shelter care, may serve as markers for husbandry concerns or data entry problems.

Capacity for housing

Capacity refers to the number of animals a shelter can humanely house. The term "humanely" includes giving each animal enough space, food and the ability to avoid stresses for the entire time it is at the shelter. Capacity is dramatically affected by intake numbers, physical space, housing units, staffing, and length of stay.

Animal care days

Animal care days are a way of evaluating the burden placed on both the animals and the shelter facility. One animal care day is the equivalent to one animal in the shelter system for one day. For example: 100 animals housed for 20 days each means 2000 animal care days. This clearly places a greater burden on a given staff and facility than 100 animals housed for 10 days (1000 animal care days) even thought the number of animals cared for is the same.