Animal shelter housing: How to make it better

Shelter housing image courtesyMurphy Foto ImageryWhen the Million Cat Challenge conceived its “Bad Cat Housing Challenge” at Animal Care Expo, there was just one person they turned to for help in designing the “good housing” portion of the exhibit. That was Heather E. Lewis, AIA, NCARB, of Animal Arts Design, a Colorado architecture firm exclusively dedicated to designing veterinary hospitals and animal shelters. We recently spoke with Lewis about the challenges facing animal shelters when they try to upgrade their housing, tips that can help them prioritize the best use of their available resources, and the problems with housing that many shelters overlook.

Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program at UF (MSMP):  Heather, what are some of the fundamental problems you see in existing dog and cat housing in shelters that they may not be aware are a problem?

Heather Lewis: Let’s start with dogs. I think there are two fundamental problems that we often see with dog housing in animal shelters. The first we usually see in poorly constructed or older shelters, and it’s that  the dogs do not have double-sided housing. When you have only single-sided housing, the dog does not have a separate compartment for elimination and is in a housing unit where they can’t get away from their poop

This is a huge stressor for dogs, and can cause them to decompensate in a shelter over time. Imagine how stressful that would be for a house-trained dog, or any dog, to be in that situation. So when you have double-compartment housing, then the dog can have sort of a clean side and a poopy side of the run. Dr. Denae Wagner from UC Davis did a study that showed that dogs have a strong preference for eliminating away from where they eat. That confirmed what we already knew, really, but it definitely showed that having double-sided canine housing is key.

Number two for dogs is having incorrectly sized housing for their needs. Any caged animal, whether a shelter dog or a chicken in a cage, deserves, and we fight for, the chance to be able to move without touching the walls of the enclosure. But in a lot of older shelters the dog kennels are so narrow that the dogs cannot move without touching the sides of their enclosures. And they will sometimes hit their tails against the wall and cause what’s called happy tail, which is not happy. It’s really sad when their tails bleed. There’s a double whammy with having a really narrow enclosure for an animal, and that is that you can’t put much in the way of enrichment in an enclosure that’s very narrow, which causes the dog additional stress. And even if you could put a bed in there, there’s probably no room to move off that bed.

If you combine those two issues, you’ve created a situation where the dog will rapidly behaviorally decompensate in his kennel. So what we want to look for is a housing enclosure that’s sized appropriately for the dog, so they can move around safely and not touch the walls of the enclosure, and can have proper enrichment in the enclosure.

I could talk on this for hours, because this is a huge passion of mine. In preparing for a talk I was giving at the Assistance Dogs Center National Conference, I looked at housing sizes across the globe. They are the world experts in housing and caring for dogs, because they care for service and guide dogs for a long length of time, and they care about outcomes for those dogs. They’re dog housing nerds. And as I looked at housing sizes and standards across the globe, I realized that housing for dogs is largely cultural. We think we know what a dog needs, and we keep perpetuating things that actually are not what a dog needs. And the US has some of the smallest and most unacceptable dog housing standards in the entire world.

Compounding problems with canine housing is that when a dog stays longer in a shelter, either on a court hold or because he is behaviorially-challenged. his need for better housing increases, However, some of the worst housing I’ve seen is for those dogs who are in the back where nobody sees them. And those are the dogs who should have the best housing, not the worst! What I mean by that is high quality, double-sided housing that they can move around in.

MSMP: What can shelters do to address these canine housing issues?

Heather Lewis: When a shelter’s trying to improve housing that’s old and not working for them, they can do something similar to what is done for shelter cats: You add a portal. You can do the same for dogs. If you have a bunch of single-sided housing units in your shelter and they’re too small, you can add guillotines to the side-to-side housing units to retrofit a double-sided configuration to allow space for larger dogs or dogs who need to stay for a longer length of time. And just the same justification can occur in a shelter for dogs as it does for cats in that those dogs that are behaviorally decompensating will do better if you give them better housing. And then, hopefully, leave the shelter more quickly, so then you can justify improving the housing even if you only have a certain amount of capacity. So I hope all of that makes sense. But certainly double sided housing and properly sized housing are the two beginning components.

“Sometimes improving outside spaces is almost more important than improving housing. They are certainly on par.”

MSMP:  If you have an outdoor space for dogs, does that count as one of the double-sided compartments?

Lewis: Yes, and, in fact, that was going to be my third rule of thumb. What I outlined so far is the bare, bare, bare minimum. All we’re doing is providing an appropriate-sized enclosure. Beyond that is the need to allow the dogs some critically important outside time. If the shelter has bad housing, it can often be overcome to some extent by having play groups and ways for the dogs to get outside. So when we think about dog housing, one of the key things that a shelter can do to improve their housing is not even inside the walls of the shelter. It’s giving them better play yards. And it’s starting a program like Dogs Playing for Life at their shelter to get those dogs outside, get them being dogs, get them to be able to exercise and blow off steam.

Sometimes improving outside spaces is almost more important than improving housing. They are certainly on par. We want to meet the standard for good housing, but beyond that also having good outside spaces is key for these dogs.

I just got back from a government animal shelter in Florida that has an older shelter, but they invested in some outside play yards for their dogs with nice covers over them, lots of different options for sizes for the play yards for different groups of dogs, and time-out areas. And as they’ve started these changes, they’ve seen great improvements in the outcomes for those dogs.

MSMP: You’ve said those conditions are the bare minimum. What if shelters want to go beyond the basics?

Lewis: Beyond that, we work on quality of the environment like noise reduction, and providing a variety of different housing sizes and setups for different temperaments and behaviors that dogs have. So for example, a small dog who’s used to being carried around, like a purse dog, might have different needs for their housing than a big dog. A big dog who’s used to being somebody’s jogging partner enjoys being in an indoor/outdoor space. And maybe a little dog who’s used to being held is enjoying a more fully conditioned space or even one where they can be housed off the floor where they feel less vulnerable. So beyond the three basics, we then start looking at environmental quality.

Shelter housing image courtesyMurphy Foto Imagery

MSMP: There’s a lot more talk lately in sheltering about the needs of cats. Could you just give an idea of some of the misconceptions that linger?

Lewis: As you say, with cats it’s a bit more well traveled, because we have Association of Shelter Veterinarian standards which are a little more specific for cats. We’ve also seen radically changed improvements for cats in recent years. Again, double-sided enclosures are very important for cats. For the most part people understand that at this point. But we still do go to shelters and see single-sided enclosures that are too small for the cat to have separation between poop and food. If the shelter hasn’t already realized that’s wrong, that’s the first thing to change. And it’s really easy to change by installing portals.

I would say second thing that I often see wrong for cats is when shelters want to upgrade their feline housing, they just go by the bare minimum ASV standard, which is a portalized four-foot stainless steel cage — basically, taking the old cages that were probably all 24 inches wide and making them into one four-foot unit. We do need to applaud all of the shelters who’ve made that change, but at the same time recognize that’s the bare minimum. So when we get a chance to replace housing for shelter, we try to up-size past that bare minimum for as many cats as we can afford to do so. So going to five-foot housing or giving the options for vertical changes within the housing unit for the cats. We’ve been using some runs for cats. We’ve used those for dogs, but we’re now using them for cats to give the cats more options, more places to climb, and a larger enclosure. So I think one of the misconceptions that I see with cats is that all we need to do is the bare minimum, when in fact, we benefit the whole population of cats by doing more than that bare minimum.

Another mistake I see with cat housing in shelters is that even now even with all the discussions we’ve had around cats, people still focus primarily on dog housing. When you go to any animal shelter workshop and talk with a larger group, a lot of people focus on the dog issues. That may be because dogs take so much of our attention when they’re stressed out; they’re barking, and standing, and carrying on. So many shelters still have a hard time focusing on the needs of cats despite all the research on those needs and the benefits of meeting them. They just give them the minimum size housing. They don’t improve the environment. They don’t allow cats to have indoor/outdoor opportunities like catios that allow them to get all those fresh air and the same enrichments that the dogs get. Sometimes, cats are in rooms where they’re staring at a blank wall under a fluorescent light.

When you put yourself in their shoes, it actually makes you want to cry. Because for the dogs you know they’re usually getting outside with volunteers. They’re getting walked. Put yourself in the perspective of that cat that’s sitting in that enclosure and staring at that blank wall all day. Attending to their emotional needs beyond that physical space is something that must happen in more shelters. You’ll often see cat volunteers who socialize cats, and give them enrichments, and that’s wonderful. But at the same time, you need to turn your focus to what can you do to the cats’ environment.

MSMP: Can you give some examples?

Lewis: In an older shelter, maybe that’s adding a solar tube to get light down in that space. Or maybe it’s improving the lighting. Or maybe it’s giving them something they can watch on the walls, like a TV. Or maybe it’s getting them into an enrichment space for the cats who live in cages, so they can play around. Maybe it’s adding a catio. Catios are really easy things to get donor support for, or to find a Boy Scout troop to build as a project. They don’t have to be very fancy.

MSMP: You’ve mentioned ASV guidelines, and of course, most people are familiar with the concept of the shelter medicine assessment. How does an architecture firm like Animal Arts fit into that picture?

Lewis: I want thank all the shelter medicine experts who have created all the information they have, because, for me as an architect, it gives credibility to what we know instinctively. For example, we think we know that creating better spaces for these animals creates better outcomes. And we often see that, actually, anecdotally. But what the shelter medicine experts do is give credibility to those concepts. Let’s say I’m going to speak to a government animal control association, and I say we need to double the size of the housing compartments for either dogs or cats. They wonder how they can spend the millions of dollars that that might take for a new shelter. Going back to those guidelines that the shelter medicine experts have created based on real research and now supported by hundreds if not thousands of case studies, we can say, “These are the approved-upon standards, and sheltering’s only getting better, so at minimum meeting the baseline standards, will help give you the best most useful tool to use for the next 20, 30 years.”

 “There’s a shelter director at a small animal control shelter in Kentucky…she says, every year, “Okay, I was clearly wrong about all my knowledge about that particular topic. And I’m now going to apply the best practice.” And her shelter outcomes keep improving.”

That process helps us have really credible conversations with people who are paying for projects. Also, because we know that cats and dogs tend to move more quickly through housing units that are designed correctly, there are some operational benefits as well. Sometimes, we can downsize some numbers of housing based on having better housing. So eve though when you build a new animal shelter you’re going to spend more money than you would have spent 20 years ago, you might actually improve your operations and have lower operational costs by applying today’s higher standards to the design.

However, I would also say this: You can’t build a house to save a marriage. In other words, operational issues have to come first. If they cannot get together with operational experts, quite honestly, they can do quite a number of changes on their own by immersing themselves in studying best practices and applying them and seeing what works. We’ve worked with dozens of shelter directors over the years who’ve done this very thing. There’s a shelter director at a small animal control shelter in Kentucky, and she is the most wonderful person. She says, every year, “Okay, I was clearly wrong about all my knowledge about that particular topic. And I’m now going to apply the best practice.” And her shelter outcomes keep improving. So operations come first. Get whatever resources you can possibly get and do that first. Don’t build a house to save the marriage.

Shelter housing image courtesyMurphy Foto Imagery

MSMP: A lot of shelters may have fears about the cost of working with Animal Arts or any architect. What would be your advice be when they start looking at a major renovation or a new shelter?

Lewis: That’s an excellent, excellent question. Once the operations are in order, you can talk about facilities. If someone has a limited amount of money, the most high value thing they can do is improve housing for the animals. And if they think they’re going to move to a new shelter within a short period of time, they can actually purchase housing that could be moved to that new shelter so as not to waste that money.

If the shelter’s just a hot mess and needs a full evaluation from a facility standpoint, they can spend money on what’s called a needs assessment. Our company may have a reputation for being expensive, but I don’t think that’s actually an earned reputation. Our needs assessments are very low cost because our goal is to help the client understand what they need and how much it’s going to cost. We don’t make money on these assessments. We keep them to a minimal cost so that we can help the shelter put their wishlist into a square footage. Once they know what that square footage costs, that shelter can go out and raise some of the money before they actually spend much time in the design process.

MSMP: Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Lewis: Thank you. This is a huge passion for me.

All photos courtesy Murphy Foto Imagery

Animal Shelter Housing Resources

Lewis provided us with a number of resources to share with our readers. Some relate more to animal hospital settings, but contain information extremely useful to animal shelters as well. Others were created specifically for shelters. And finally, we’ve included a video of the shelter housing presentation Lewis did for the Maddie’s® Professional Certificate in Shelter Medicine course.

Note: In some of these resources Lewis says cats should be housed so they’re not facing each other. She now believes that as long as there is a good distance between the cats and they have great housing, seeing each other is not a problem.