On Monday, I spent a bit of time discussing two important concepts in creating and maintaining an open-admission no-kill shelter in your community:
1) Focusing on saving animals so that the number of positive outcomes = the number of animals coming in
2) Decreasing length of stay as a way to increase the number of animals your shelter can care for effectively throughout the course of a year.
The first idea is pretty simple, and while the second idea is also simple, the question may be, "Sure, but how do we decrease length of stay?"
So below are some ideas of things that you and your organization can do to decrease length of stay at your shelter or rescue:
1) Be Open. People can't adopt from you when you're closed. So step number one is to be open. At KC Pet Project, we are open for adoptions and RTOs 363 days per year (we are closed Christmas and Thanksgiving). Being open maximizes the speed at which we can move animals.
Being open includes being open on both weekend days (which should be your busiest adoption days because more people should be off work and available to adopt those days).
It should also include being open on holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and New Years Day -- this seems crazy to me to be closed on those are days when people are off work. Holidays tend to be our highest adoptions days! Be open so people can come to adopt.
This also includes being open on all weekdays as well. I know a lot of shelters are closed to the public on, say, Mondays, as a "regroup day" after the weekend. We stared off doing this at KC Pet Project. But one day Michelle (my wife, and fellow co-founder) was talking about the impact it was having on animals length of stay at the shelter. In Missouri, our stray hold for animals is a mandatory five days (the shelter must be open for the day to count).
By being closed on Monday, we were actually causing every animal that came in on a Tuesday - Sunday to serve an additional day of stray hold that didn't count toward its stray hold time. So they were serving 6 days at the shelter without being available for adoption or being sent to rescue. This accumulated to more than 8500 kennel days just in extra stray hold for our animals.
Being open is important. Be open.
#2 Increase Adoption Traffic - Obviously the more adopters you have, the faster they'll adopt animals. But you can't just open your doors and expect adopters to come. Promote that you are there. Open a permanent off-site adoption center. Showcase your animals. Be involved in your community. If you can afford to advertise, advertise. If you can't afford to advertise, put flyers in apartments, coffee shops, etc. Hand them out at parades. Take pictures of your pets for adoption and put them on your social media feeds*. And your website. Encourage people to share them. Maximize the exposure for your pets any and every way you can.
#3 Embrace Open Adoptions - I'm not going to get into open adoption policies and practices a lot in this post -- I have an entire post on Open Adoption Policies here and another here. But if you are doing the work to promote your pets to potential adopters, and the adopters show up to adopt, you also have to be sure they leave with a pet in order for the process to work! So if you are denying people from adopting because they don't live in the right zip code, are a minority, don't have a fence, have a fence, work too much, work too little, have a child, don't have a child, or whatever reason you came up with to deny them -- second guess your adoption policies. All of them. You are driving up length of stay for your shelter or your rescue group and decreasing the number of lives you save.
#4 Increase the number of animals returned to their owner -- The only way a pet can safely leave our shelter in less than 5 days is by being returned to its owner. While the average length of stay for a dog in our shelter is about 14 days, the average length of stay for one returned to its owner is 3. RTO's are the best and fastest way of getting pets out safely. Just increasing the RTO rate three percentage points makes a difference of nearly 4,000 kennel days at our shelter.
Get pictures of lost pets up on your website and Facebook page immediately upon intake. Scan for microchips. Check for tags or other identification. It's important. And the fastest way to move animals out of your shelter quickly.
#5 Get animals altered and ready to go immediately -- So, one thing a lot of shelters do is wait for a pet to be adopted before they go through the work (and expense) of altering the animal*. So someone comes in and adopts on a Saturday, and the shelter will then put the pet on the spay/neuter schedule for Monday or Tuesday and the adopter comes back and gets the pet on Tuesday or Wednesday. Meanwhile, that pet, which has a home, just took up a kennel in your shelter for three days.
Alter them the morning the end of their stray hold and put them up for adoption immediately.
I realize this can't always happen. Sporadic veterinary hours sometimes means a vet isn't there every day. Or, often in a shelter environment dogs come down with kennel cough and it's not safe to alter them until they've had a couple of weeks to recover. In those cases, send the adopted pet home with the owner with a scheduled appointment time for their surgery. Call them a couple of days before the appointment time and have them come back for the surgery. We have had extremely high compliance with this at our shelter (most people WANT to have their pets altered) as long as we do the follow up calls. And don't worry about the "time" it takes to make the calls -- because making a phone call takes less time than caring for that animal for 3 days while you wait for the surgery to happen.
#6. Make a plan for your animals -- When an animal comes into your shelter, make a plan for that animal of how you expect that animal to positively leave your shelter. Does it have identification or a nice collar? Then that animal is likely to leave via RTO.
Is the pet of a certain breed that you have a good breed-rescue partner that you can plan to get the dog on day 6 when it's available for transfer? Start making plans on day four for the transfer (80+% of our RTOs happen within 3 days, so starting to call rescue groups on day four for conditional rescue pull is appropriate).
Is the pet highly adoptable at the shelter (or one of your satellite adoption facilities?) then by all means, promote the pet and adopt it out!
Do you think the pet needs behavior modification? Then start it immediately.
But more than likely, with about 2 minutes of thought, you can have a pretty good idea of what the most likely outcome for a pet is in your shelter the second it comes in. Start making a plan for it . Sure, adjust accordingly, but don't find yourself looking at a dog that has been in your shelter for 30 days and then start wondering what the plan is for that dog - that plan should have been started 25 days ago.
#7 Shorten Length of Stay for Long-timers too -- Yes, getting animals out quickly and safely is important, but in each and every shelter there are some animals that are going to take a little more time than others. Maybe it's a breed that is difficult to adopt out in your area due to high population of the breed or breed restrictions in your community. Maybe it's an animal that is not terribly well socialized. Maybe it's one that is a little jumpy and mouthy. Maybe it's an animal that came in with a bad injury and needs time to recover. Whatever the case, we've all seen these animals that end up at shelters for a fairly lengthy amount of time before being adopted. That's OK.
The important thing is to be sure that these long-timers are somewhat few, and that we do what is necessary to decrease their length of stay also.
Playgroups and other behavior modification plans can provide enrichment for these animals while they're at the shelter, and also help them become adopted more quickly. A good veterinary treatment program can help with disease. A little additional time spent on marketing the long-timers (or potential long-timers) can also help. The important thing is, again, make a plan -- and help these animals that will be there for a longer stay than others are there for 30 or 60 days, and not 365.
#8 Treat fosters with urgency too -- Your foster homes are kennels space for pets too. So getting animals in and out of foster home quickly can help keep fosters for you longer, but also opens those foster homes to being able to take in new shelter pets that need help. So while getting pets into foster is good, getting them out is also important.
These are just a few of the ideas and programs that we've implemented to help decrease the length of stay for pets at our shelter so that we can maximize the number of positive outcomes and also maximize the number of animals we can care for at our shelter. Decreasing the length of stay can help your shelter or rescue group too.
I think it's so important for rescue groups to focus on these policies also because by moving animals in and out of rescue quickly, they get the pet into their permanent home more quickly AND enable the rescue to help decrease the length of stay at the area shelter too -- helping them save more lives.
It's good policy, and good practice. And it works.
* I am aware of quite a few shelters out there that don't do a lot of life-saving practices because of fear of what might happen to the animal. They don't alter pets before they are adopted because they don't want to go through the time and expense of altering the pet because it >might< end up euthanized. They also resist putting a pet's picture on their social media to showcase it for adoption because of the fear of euthanizing the animal. If you are afraid to do things that would help save that animal's life because you may later euthanize that animal, you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.