Defining ‘good quality of life’ for pets in shelters

When we talk about a shelter pet’s “quality of life,” what do we mean?

In a recent presentation by our Dr. Cynda Crawford and Aimee Sandler of the Playing for Life program, Dr. Crawford tackled the definition this way:

Regardless of our shelter model and our resources at hand, whether we’re resource-rich or resource-poor, we all actually have common, shared goals for our shelter and the animals who are within our care.


One goal is we all strive to stay within our capacity for care as defined by the housing capacity as well as the staffing capacity.  We all want to shorten the length of stay for each animal under our care.  And this is very important, to stay within capacity for care.  And then ultimately the prize is to end euthanasia of all healthy and treatable animals sooner rather than later.


So we’re all striving for this goal and certainly this can put us at a little bit of odds with length of stay as we try to save all the healthy and treatable. We may have longer lengths of stay to find the matching home that’s perfect for that pet.  And this can then have us struggle a little bit with staying within capacity for care.  And this is what makes it so important to assure that every pet under our care waiting for its home has good quality of life.  But what is quality of life?


I’m sure every single one of us has a little bit different definition and we have parts of our definition match with everyone else, but certainly quality of life encompasses both physical and behavioral health.  And it depends on the balance between the two.  If you have too much emphasis on behavioral needs, you may put medical health at risk.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are too worried about keeping all the animals safe and free from any potential exposure to injury or disease, then they will suffer behaviorally and mentally and emotionally.  So it needs to be a balance.




So obviously high quality of life, all five freedoms [of animal welfare] are met.  The pets are always happy, very competent, excellent, perfect caregiving, but we also have good quality of life where there may not be every discomfort met or there may not be every opportunity to express some sort of normal behavior or socialization need, but most of the time those needs are met…. The dog is happy most of the time and they still have very competent, caregiving, good quality of life and a nurturing environment.  And this is where we need to stay.


We do not need to be going below the high quality scale and the good quality scale with regard to happiness and a nurturing environment.


Below that, where many of the five freedoms are compromised by our care, by our neglect, not by the animal’s choice, then they have poor quality of life.  They are not happy at all…. And this is actually where people like the ASPCA and the HSUS and animal control officers start thinking about prosecuting for animal cruelty, when the quality of life is so poor.


So we as professional caregivers, veterinarians, behavior experts, need to be sure that we have resources, either within our own shelter or resources we can borrow from the community to nurture the five freedoms for every animal and give them good quality of life and strive for the highest quality.

So, what are the standards every shelter can use to guide them? Dr. Crawford answered that as well: The Association of Shelter Veterinarians Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, from which she called out these key quotes related to quality of life for sheltered animals:

  • “Good health and well-being depend on meeting both the physical needs and mental, behavioral needs of animals.”
  • “Behavioral health should be given the same significance as other components of animal care and should not be considered optional.”
  • “No matter what your resource level is, there are resources available to ensure that this portion of overall health is addressed.”
  • “And finally, proper behavioral health care is essential to reduce stress and suffering.”

You can watch the complete presentation below, and read the transcript here.