Pediatric spay/neuter: do recent reports have you confused?

It looks like spring is once again upon us and with it is the start of puppy and kitten season. As you likely already know, providing spay and neuter services to our shelter and community animals is essential for managing pet overpopulation. This makes sense, as preventing unwanted litters will ultimately decrease the number of homeless animals. However, you may be aware of some recent reports linking harmful health conditions to early age spay/neuter. With many puppies and kittens soon entering our shelters, this may leave you wondering when is the optimal age for these procedures?

kittens looking confused

Is younger better?

In most cases, yes! For those of us involved in animal sheltering, our goal is to get animals adopted as humanely and as quickly as possible. Most people would agree that dogs and cats are at their cutest and, therefore, most adoptable during puppy and kittenhood. It is, therefore, beneficial for shelters to have them ready for adoption at the safest and earliest age possible.

For several years now shelters and high-quality high-volume spay/neuter clinics have been spaying and neutering puppies and kittens as early as 2 months of age. What veterinarians have seen in the short term is that these youngsters require less anesthetic and surgical time as compared to their adult counterparts, decreasing the risks associated with these factors. Additionally, puppies and kittens clinically appear to recover from surgery much quicker and can often be found playing and rough housing just a few hours after surgery!

Is there any cause for alarm?

Not at this time. Recently, several studies have reported that certain types of cancers and musculoskeletal conditions may be the result of early age spay/neuter. However, most of these studies sampled specific breeds from hospital records, making application to the general dog and cat populations inappropriate. Although there are risks (anesthetic related complications, post-operative bleeding, etc.) associated with every type of surgical procedure, at this time there is no conclusive evidence indicating that early age spay/neuter increases the risk of developing harmful health conditions later in life. In light of pet overpopulation, the benefits of pediatric spay/neuter indeed outweigh any risks.

Are there any precautions for pediatric spay/neuter procedures?

Yes. These little creatures are quite susceptible to both hypothermia (being cold) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) during anesthesia. It is, therefore, important to feed them a small amount of food just prior to anesthesia in order for them to maintain their blood sugar levels. For a 2lb puppy or kitten, a tablespoon of canned food ½ hour before premedication for anesthesia will help keep their blood sugar stable. In order to maintain body temperature, puppies and kittens should be provided with a supplemental heat source before, during and after their procedures. Individual puppies and kittens can be given a warming disc or bag while in their cages before and after surgery. Litters should be housed together or with their mothers, if possible, to benefit from each other’s body heat. Use of a warm water pad or even a layer of foam over the surgery table will help prevent their body temperatures from dropping dangerously low during surgery.puppies in a box

Another benefit to consider

Pediatric spay/neuter shortens the length of stay for puppies and kittens in shelters. It is well accepted that the longer an animal is in a shelter, the more likely it will become exposed to contagious disease and become ill. Puppies and kittens are our most susceptible shelter residents and it should be a priority to get them adopted as soon as possible. By spaying and neutering them at 2 months of age, we will not only have them ready for adoption when they are at their cutest, but also when it is most protective for them.

What do you think about early age spay-neuter? Leave your comments below in the discussion area.

The Birds and the Bees…..

downloadAs many shelters have encountered, hoarding situations are often not limited to cats and dogs.  So staff can sometimes be faced with determining housing based on sex to avoid adding to the pet population. Although some exotic species are very social and being housed together can reduce stress, it’s important to be able to sex them to prevent unwanted litters, advise potential adopters, and avoid possible fighting. Sexing different species can be challenging to say the least. Internet searches can be a powerful tool with images and videos to help. But here are some tips all in one place that may be useful:


Rabbits can be tricky. A relaxed male can have obvious testicles. But if nervous, they have an ability to keep them in their abdomen rather than allowing them to descend and be easily identified. If already neutered, it is essential to extrude the genitals to determine sex. There are sometimes only subtle differences between an extruded penis and an extruded vulva. It’s also important to remember proper handling techniques when sexing rabbits since any kind of a struggle can lead to a back injury. 0e55aa8e4a5f6afac5b1cb4ee200e512

Guinea Pigs

Guinea Pigs are somewhat easier. Males will have obvious testicles usually becoming more prominent after 4 weeks of age. If altered, the penis can be extruded to verify sex.

Small Rodents

In some instances males can keep their testicles retracted like rabbits. Otherwise, males can have prominent testicles. Other tips include using the distance between the anus and genitals (where males will have a greater distance), and observing nipples (only in females) to determine sex.

Reptiles and Birds

Laszlo probing drawingThese animals can be the most difficult to sex. Some species have different coloring or physical characteristics that differentiate the sexes (Eclectus parrots have red females and green males). Lizards and snakes can sometimes have sex determined by inserting a probe into the cloaca (the probe will go in further in males). Some species can only be sexed with DNA testing. It’s recommended to involve an exotics veterinarian or specialist to aid in sexing.

With Spring in the air, it may be a good time to brush up on sexing different species because you never know when you may have hundreds of rats on your hands.


Separation is key!

Do you know the different between isolation and quarantine? Does your staff, board members or architects understand what a holding ward is? If the answer is no–you are not alone. These terms are commonly misused by shelter workers, and it is important that we define each as a separate space. This is particularly poignant during renovations or the creation of a new facility. Let’s take a look at what these words mean for your organization:

1) Holding refers to a space for healthy, not yet adoptable animals. You may be familiar with holding spaces in the context of stray or health department holds. Holding is a place where non-infectious animals can wait for the next step in their shelter journey. They may be waiting for a medical check, spay-neuter, or their owner to reclaim them. Holding is further broken down based on species and age. It is important to separate based on these factors in the event of a disease outbreak and to reduce stress. In general every shelter should have four holding spaces: kitten, adult cat, puppy and adult dog.

2) Quarantine is confusing term due to overlap between holding and isolation. Strictly speaking, quarantine is for currently healthy animals which have been exposed to infectious disease. For example quarantine should be used for transfer of dogs from another organization which is experiencing a kennel cough outbreak. These dogs were exposed, may become ill, and shouldn’t be put in the general population (holding) in case they become sick. Quarantine is useful when there is a history or known high risk of disease exposure. Once again, quarantine spaces should be broken up by species and age, but also by origin. If you take in transfers from multiple organizations at the same time, it is ideal to quarantine them in separate spaces.

3) Isolation is where sick animals are held for the duration of their treatment. Another term you may have heard is infirmary or hospital. In general, isolation is for animals with contagious disease (e.g. URI, parvovirus, ringworm). A hospital or treatment area may refer to a space where non-infectious diseases are treated (e.g. injuries, recovering from surgery). Isolation should be broken up by species and disease. The disease categories we tend to use are respiratory (URI), gastrointestinal (GI or diarrhea) and derm (ringworm). At a bare minimum shelters should have one isolation ward per species. However, it is best to keep the diseases separate, as you do not want your URI cats to develop ringworm or panleukopenia, etc. With dogs, kennel cough is further complicated by distemper, necessitating a separate distemper area if your shelter chooses to

Wow, that’s a lot of spaces. You may be thinking that it is impossible to provide enough spaces for all the diseases, species and age groups described above–and you are right! In the real world shelters have limited space and resources. So how do you determine how much of each type of space your shelter needs? Ask yourself the following questions: What species do you keep? How many at a time? What diseases do you see commonly? Which diseases will you treat or not treat? What spaces do you have available?

If your shelter does not treat ringworm, parvo, panleukopenia or distemper, then those diseases can be ignored. Frequently we are left with URI and diarrhea (Giardia, coccidia) for dogs and cats. Having flexible spaces, i.e. small rooms, allows a shelter to shift the purpose of a room. For example, when taking in a transport of puppies, a room can turn from adult dog URI to puppy holding. Of course, it is important to clean and disinfect appropriately, as some diseases can stay in the environment (e.g. parvo, ringworm). In many instances rooms can be combined due to necessity, e.g. ringworm houses cats and kittens. Now that you know the basics, let’s summarize:

  • Holding (healthy animals)
    • Adult cat
    • Kitten
    • Adult dog
    • Puppy
    • Small animals (rabbits, etc.)
  • Quarantine (healthy animals)
    • Variable
    • Can be unoccupied isolation, holding space or foster
  • Isolation (sick animals)
    • Adult cat URI
    • Kitten URI
    • Adult cat diarrhea
    • Kitten diarrhea
    • Feline ringworm (adult and kitten)
    • Adult dog URI
    • Puppy URI
    • Adult dog diarrhea
    • Puppy diarrhea

I hope this overview has been helpful. Look at your particular shelter and make sure that you have basic holding and isolation spaces. Still overwhelmed? Consultation with an expert in shelter medicine may help!

Daily Rounds

Whether you have been working in a shelter for years or today is your first day, you have likely noticed that managing the health and wellbeing of the many animals under our care can be a daunting task. Performing daily rounds is an excellent way to keep your team informed and help ensure that every animal stays as happy and healthy as possible. This efficient method of physically observing every animal on a daily basis will facilitate decision-making, as well as each animal’s path towards adoption.

How are they helpful?

We know that shelters can be stressful environments, which can facilitate susceptibility to disease. To lend to that, animals of all ages and health statuses enter and leave our facilities on a regular basis. Daily rounds are a great way to ensure that animals are remaining healthy or are receiving and responding to treatments in a timely manner. By observing every animal every day, new illness can be detected early and in the case of infectious disease, potentially prevent shelter-wide outbreaks.

yellow lab

How do you do it?

The very nature of animal sheltering requires a team effort and effective communication to ensure the successful adoption of animals entering ours shelters. Daily rounds is an essential method of not only monitoring the health of each animal, but also is an opportunity to discuss that animal’s plan with a variety of team members with a goal of expediting the path towards adoption. Although there is no right or wrong way to perform daily rounds, they are typically held at least once daily, where every animal is observed in its enclosure and a brief history of the animal is reported. The current and future status of that animal is then discussed as a team with any needed actions recorded and initiated.

Who should come?

Because of the various needs of the animals, any staff member involved in decision-making should participate in daily rounds. This may include medical staff, behavior staff, managers, directors, adoption staff, and animal control officers. Although it will typically only take a few minutes to “round” about each animal, for shelters with large populations these minutes can quickly turn into hours. Dividing team members to cover different shelter populations may be the best viable option. Any serious concerns can then be reported to the entire group at a later time.

kittens in cage

Is that all there really is to it?

Yes! It’s daily observation and discussion of each animal that can make all the difference in keeping the animals and shelter at their healthiest. However, you and your team decide to perform daily rounds, consider organizing your team and get started today!

Don’t Be A Martyr

guy sneezingOne of the top priorities of shelter staff is the prevention of illness and spread of disease among the shelter population. Strong emphasis is put on cleaning and disinfection, personal protection equipment, low-stress environments, and safe animal handling. But when considering the shelter population, most staff fail to make the same commitment to keeping themselves healthy as they do for the animals. This is particularly devastating for shelters that are already understaffed and then have to deal with a human outbreak of the cold and flu virus.

According to Gallup, for December 2014 the daily cold and flu reports averaged 4% and 11% of Americans respectively – the highest since 2008 when Gallup first started tracking them. To add insult to injury, the flu vaccine is only 18% effective this year according to the CDC. This year the H3N2 flu virus has been predominant prompting experts to suspect that this year’s flu season could be characterized as severe. H3N2 viruses were predominant during 2011-2012, 2007-2008, and 2003-2004 – the three seasons with the highest mortality rate in the past decade.

So how do we prevent ourselves from getting sick? The simple precautions doctors have been telling us for years still hold true today. swine-flu-mask-for-cat-011813

No touchy: Avoid people who are sick and wash your hands. Shaking hands or touching things used by infected people then touching your eyes or mouth will pretty much guarantee transmission. So sing Happy Birthday to yourself while washing and wash often.

Sleep well, eat well, and get plenty of exercise: Obviously this is the key to good health not just in flu season, but every season.

Vaccinate yourself: Despite it’s low efficacy this year, the flu vaccine can lessen the severity of symptoms. Also, the more people vaccinated the more it leads to herd immunity.

Stay home: If you do get hit with a virus, do yourself and co-workers a favor and stay home. Most people find this the hardest to abide by. They see the short term difficulties of fellow staff members getting all the work done. But in the long run it will be a lot more beneficial to have just one person out sick than the entire staff at some point.

Long story short, don’t be a martyr. The shelter will run without you for a couple of days while you get better.


Stuck between a rock and a hard place: Legal dilemmas in shelters

Let’s face it: shelter medicine is evolving. As sheltering systems improve and the bar is raised for animal welfare organizations, what was once acceptable for sheltering 10 or 20 years ago is no longer in vogue. While shelters are not as heavily policed as some other industries, shelters can easily find themselves in a complex legal situation. While shelters may be more likely to be the victims of bad social media campaigns than a government audit, the implications of the latter being much more serious.

Shelters are governed not only by federal law, but by state and local ordinances. It is important to know that many organizations are involved, from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to the state pharmacy boards. As inter-state transport and shelter cooperation increase, it is especially important to know the differences in state regulations. To look up local and federal laws, try Michigan State’s wonderful website:

Perhaps the most important laws to follow are those relating to the DEA and controlled drugs. The DEA enforces federal law regarding controlled substances in an attempt to reduce human abuse. Shelters can hold limited DEA licenses or use a veterinarian’s personal DEA license. Neglected log books, security or reporting errors can have serious consequences. If you haven’t recently reviewed the regulations, head on over to for more information.

Less serious, but equally important legal issues can arrive from the community and social dilemmas. Have you ever had someone surrender or request euthanasia of a pet which was not theirs? Make sure that your surrender forms encompass transfer of ownership and family issues with a statement such as “I am the sole and exclusive owner of (animal’s name). I am signing for myself, my spouse, heirs, etc.” The same is true of adoptions for dangerous or ill animals, foster care and rescue groups.

Remember, there is no way to completely stop a lawsuit from occurring, but you can mitigate the risk of prosecution with a good defensive paper trail. Organizations should consider getting professional legal services to ensure that their “fine print” is up to date. Contracts can be a good first step, but don’t forget to engage in the conversation. Many lawsuits are due to poor communication, rather than true malpractice or negligence.

I Got 99 Problems and a Box Ain’t One

Lion tamer, with raised whip, directs a tiger toward a large litter box. - New Yorker Cartoon  By: Warren Miller

Lion tamer, with raised whip, directs a tiger toward a large litter box. – New Yorker Cartoon
By: Warren Miller

It is always a point of concern when a cat is surrendered with a history of inappropriate elimination in the home. Having a shelter protocol in place to address each animal is beneficial to rule out particular causes. Evaluation of the inappropriate eliminator should always include analysis of the home environment, behavioral causes, and medical causes.

Evaluation of the Home Environment

It is highly recommended that owners surrendering animals with a history of inappropriate elimination fill out a separate surrender form detailing these circumstances in their home. This simple questionnaire can reveal information that may increase your suspicion of either a medical or behavioral cause. Some question to consider include duration of the problem, changes in the home environment, sources of stress, number of pets in the household, etc. Note where the elimination is occurring (vertical surfaces, one other location, the bathroom, everywhere). Other things to consider are the number of boxes available, their location, their substrate, and their cleaning frequency. These questions may help to identify a stress factor that caused the change in behavior or guide you to evaluate another cause.

Medical Evaluation

Cats that have been eliminating outside of the litter box may have a medical reason for doing so (pain, infection, dysfunction, systemic disease, cancer). If an animal is experiencing painful urination, they may associate that pain with being in the litter box. This association may encourage the cat to seek other seemingly more comfortable places to urinate. It has been hypothesized that animals will seek out cool surfaces such as tile or ceramic that may be considered more comfortable or soothing. It is highly beneficial to have these animals evaluated by a veterinarian. When evaluating the inappropriate eliminator, a thorough physical exam should be performed first. Abnormalities may be palpated in the organ in question or pain may be noted that can narrow down potential causes. Urine should be examined for abnormalities as well as a serum chemistry (blood test) to evaluate kidney function, systemic function, and/or infection. Finally, a focused urinary tract ultrasound, if available, should be performed to observe gross abnormalities associated with the organs in question.

Behavioral Evaluation

Behavioral evaluation may be limited in the shelter to observing litter box habits. Have shelter staff monitor where the cat is eliminating consistently. Changes can be attempted in the shelter to see if the cat prefers a different kind of litter or box size.

The Best Offense

Potential adopters should be notified about the history of inappropriate elimination in previous homes/the shelter. Along with this information, supply suggestions as to what cats prefer in terms of the litter box. Most cats prefer non-scented clay litter and uncovered litter boxes. Cats should have a litter box big enough for them to stand and turn around in (approximately 1.5x the size of the cat). Finding an ideal litter box can be difficult for large cats and geriatric animals that may not be able to easily get into or position themselves. In that case, low sided storage bins (such as under the bed plastic storage) can be used as a cheap and well-sized alternative to the litter boxes pet stores supply. Litter boxes should be placed in quiet areas with minimal foot traffic. The ideal number of litter boxes in a home should be the number of cats in the home plus one. The boxes should be cleaned frequently, ideally once per day and washed weekly. Some cats may require even more frequent cleaning. Even if conditions are ideal, some cats may require troubleshooting. Have resources available for owners and adopters that provide strategies for litterbox success.

Keep in mind that we cannot solve every inappropriate eliminator. If all else fails, consider an outdoor home!


Some Resources

A Safe Place

dog crateTraditionally, cats have been at the forefront when it comes to providing a space to hide. It has been well documented that by having a box or carrier to freely hang out in, their stress level can be reduced significantly. In turn, by lowering their stress level we reduce their risk of becoming ill. But it’s not just cats that can benefit from this. Dogs and exotic animals need a place where they ‘can get away from it all’ – at least in their own minds. Imagine yourself in a fish bowl with all kinds of noises and people bustling about. It can be overwhelming to say the least. Even pet owners are being marketed to provide dens that mimic side tables or nightstands, or that match the decor in their home.

Hide spaces don’t need to be expensive. Boxes that arrive with inventory can be stored and available for putting in with small dogs, cats, rabbits or guinea pigs. The nice thing about cardboard boxes is that they are thrown away after use and are conducive to infectious disease control. Toilet paper or paper towel rolls can be used with mice, hamsters or gerbils. Cardboard is also a valuable source of enrichment for small mammals because they love to chew it. Carriers or crates work well with dogs and cats, and can increase living area by providing vertical space. A blanket on top of a carrier can be a comfortable perch for cats and small dogs.

rabbitThe main things to remember are safety (not something that will collapse on the animal), sanitation (if not disposable it needs to be a material that is easily disinfected), size (something they can fit into and naturally stand or turn around in), and positioning (having the opening face people as they walk by doesn’t feel safe to the animal). Most often some great hiding tools can be found in storage around the shelter. But for those who want to make an investment there are commercially available cardboard hide boxes for cats as well.

Get the facts: Foster vs. nursery

Kitten nurseries are a hot topic in shelter medicine right now. As more and more shelter jump on the bandwagon it is important that we examine the pros and cons of creating your own kitten nursery and determine what is best for your shelter.  Kittens season lasts from mid spring to early fall and many shelters find themselves overrun with kitten at this time. Traditionally, kittens are either euthanized or sent to foster care until they are old enough for surgery and adoption. Kittens are generally not housed in the shelter due to risk of developing illness and due to physical limitations such as sheer volume of kittens and their high requirements for basic care. Foster care has long provided free labor for cleaning, medicating, feeding and socializing kittens. Foster homes should only have one litter of kittens at a time, which means that they function as quarantine units. Sick and healthy litters are thus kept separate, which is important for reducing spread of infectious disease. Foster care also provides a home environment, to get kittens used to things such as vacuums, stairs and children. Some foster parents end up adopting kittens, or find homes for their foster kittens, which helps expedite the flow of kittens through the shelter system.


While foster care has been a staple for kitten rearing in many shelters, it does have drawbacks. Fostering hundreds of kittens means that you need a dedicated base of individuals who are available to take kittens. Some foster parents only take small numbers of kittens per year, or get burnt out due to emotional fatigue. Foster parents also have differing skill levels. Often shelters have a lack of caregivers who are comfortable–and available–to take bottle feeders or extremely sick kittens. Managing hundreds of foster caregivers is also a huge responsibility–foster coordination takes a lot of time and often requires several individuals to arrange check-ups, make calls and provide care to all the kittens in the system. For some shelters this is simply too much work, or their foster system is not yet developed enough to handle the current numbers of kittens coming through the door.

Enter the nursery. A kitten nursery is a physical location–often a room, trailer or building–which is used seasonally to house kittens. Nurseries are run by paid staff and volunteers, who provide 24 hour care to their patients, functioning much like an ICU in a veterinary hospital. Depending on the scope of the nursery, they may house bottle feeders, weaned kittens, and nursing moms in different rooms, or only provide housing for certain categories of kittens. Having 24 hour staff in short shifts means that instead of hundreds of foster care-givers waking up every 4 hours for bottle feeding, one person can feed the whole ward while the rest of the team sleeps. The nursery can be temperature controlled and all supplies are in one location. For obvious reasons, nursery staff need to be highly trained in kitten care in order to prevent milk aspiration, diarrhea and spread of contagious disease. This means that a supervisor needs to train staff and be accessible for any questions volunteers may have. Good hygiene and biosecurity is essential in nurseries in order to prevent outbreaks of diseases like panleukopenia, coccidia or ringworm. Nurseries also allow for great PR, and are a cause which many people may donate towards–perhaps those same people who didn’t donate to support the foster program or your shelter in general. That being said, nurseries can be costly to run due to increased labor time, utilities, and supplies, which are normally supplemented by the foster care-giver.


Overall, kitten nurseries are a hot new service which some shelters are providing. Foster care will remain a stable of kitten rearing in summer months, but for some shelters a nursery may be a more viable option. Knowing the pros and cons of each paradigm is essential for organizations thinking about making the switch. Remember to create protocols, consult with your veterinarian, and to provide training and support for all those involved–no matter what your kitten-saving strategy may be!

Check out the North Shore Animal Rescue League’s nursery, which includes great PR material including a live cam and information about some of the animal in their care.

Microchips can save lives

tiny microchip

They may be tiny, but their impact is great.

You probably already know that if a lost pet has a microchip implanted, their chance of being reunited with their owner is greatly increased. But did you know that without a microchip (or any other form of ID) on average, only 2% of cats and 30% of dogs are returned to their owners? Placing a microchip can increase this success rate to 40% for cats and 60% for dogs. It is therefore very worthwhile to be sure all pets entering a shelter are scanned for a microchip and have a chip implanted if one is not found.

Keep that scanner handy

Ideally, every animal entering a shelter should be checked for a microchip with a universal scanner at the time of intake. The process takes less than 30 seconds and the only equipment required is a scanner that has fully charged batteries. The scanner should be held just above the animal’s body while it is moved slowly over the animal, covering the entire body. It is important to scan the whole animal because although most microchips are implanted between the shoulder blades, they can migrate over time. If a microchip is found and has been registered by the owner, the number can be entered into AHHA’s Pet Microchip Lookup tool  in order to identify the owner. This process can also be done in the field by animal control officers, which may prevent a pet from entering a shelter altogether.

Give it a try

If a microchip is not identified at intake, it’s best to go ahead and place one at that time. This procedure is similar to giving an injection for a vaccine and causes minimal discomfort to the animal. If you are concerned that the animal will not remain still for the microchipping process, try distracting them with a treat or attention from another staff member.  Check out the link below to see how microchipping is accomplished quick and easy!

microchip scanner

Although implanting a microchip does not require anesthesia, many animal welfare organizations will wait to place one until the time of spay/neuter. This is particularly helpful if staff availability is limited for intake procedures. Additionally, there are no age restrictions when implanting a microchip. However, it is typical to wait until a kitten or puppy is 8 weeks of age before placing the chip, as this is the most common age these little ones are spayed or neutered.

Make microchipping one of your shelter’s protocols

It’s truly amazing that such a tiny and easy to use piece of technology can have such a large impact. We encourage every animal welfare organization to consider the potential life saving affects of microchips and be sure to scan every animal that enters their facility. Better yet, consider placing microchips in shelter animals to help ensure future owners will be reunited with their pet if ever lost!

Check out this video of how to microchip!

Helpful links:

AHHA’s Pet Microchip Lookup