Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shelter makeover: porthole edition

Yes, that’s a shelter veterinarian using a plasma saw.
Shelter veterinarians wear many hats: they are infectious disease specialists, behaviorists, surgeons… and handymen? Actually, usually the plasma saw is wielded by someone brought in from outside the shelter, but this time we did it ourselves.

Like many shelters, this small county shelter had upgraded the cat housing in its public adoptions area, but couldn’t afford to do so in the back rooms, where cats lived before going up for adoptions. These cages were small, just big enough for a litter box, a food bowl, and a water bowl — not enough room for a cat to stretch out to her full length, or take a few steps. Cats sometimes lived here for weeks; when the shelter got full, these rooms became adoption rooms as well, and cats lost their chance to get moved up to the better housing. But the cages were built into the wall, so replacing them would be extremely expensive. When I walked into this room, my heart always hurt a little for the cats crowded into it.

The solution: installing portholes to turn single cages into double rooms. It is a stroke of genius -- just cut a hole between two cages, and suddenly the cat has twice the space. His litterbox can be in a separate room from his food bowl! He gets space to stretch out, to walk around a little. This can make a huge difference not just in a cat’s quality of life, but even in his risk for succumbing to infectious disease (and healthy cats get out the door to their new home faster than sick ones). As an added bonus, you get to use a plasma saw. Of course, the next steps include installing PVC portholes, so the cats aren’t walking through bare metal. Detailed instructions are online. My fellow shelter medicine interns and residents and I got to put in a bunch of portholes ourselves. It was fun, but the best part was seeing the reaction of the first cat who was moved into the new digs. He immediately stretched out on his side and began to knead with his paws in deep happiness.

But double cages for each cat means there is housing for only half as many cats. The first question I am always asked about this project is “Can the shelter close the portholes again if they need the extra space?” Yes, that’s possible (you can install doors), but it’s not recommended. Current thinking is that no one should be taking in animals which they cannot house appropriately — if you have to overcrowd, then you need to find some other alternative to taking in more animals. Do whatever you did before when you were full — hopefully that means running an adoptathon, contacting rescue groups to help transfer animals out of the shelter, or closing the shelter to intakes.

An interesting fact in the housing capacity controversy is this: offering up more animals for adoption doesn't mean you'll adopt out animals any faster. In other words, if you are adopting out an average of 10 animals a day, then that is the average you’re going to adopt out whether you have 20 or 100 animals on the adoption floor. There are ways to increase adoptions, but putting more animals on the floor isn’t one of them. In fact, adoptions may actually decrease when you have a greater selection, because of the Paradox of Choice: more choice can overwhelm people and cause them fail to choose anything at all. Meanwhile, those animals who are in the shelter, in overcrowded housing, not getting adopted, are more likely to get sick, or develop behavior problems from their long incarceration. Simply resisting the pressure to overcrowd can solve many of a shelter's problems.

It isn’t easy to say no to overcrowding, of course. There are so many animals out there who need help, that realizing that you don’t have the resources to help them yourself can be tough. Irreversibly reducing the number of housing units, and simultaneously increasing the size of each unit, can help shelters maintain their commitment not to overcrowd. Portholes are good things. When I stepped into the finished room with its newly enlarged cages, I felt an almost physical release in my chest. Being in a shelter is no fun for a cat, but these cats were going to have a much easier time of it from now on.

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