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: www.animallaw.info

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  www.dea.gov 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

http://drsophiayin.com/images/uploads/Litter_boxes.jpeg

http://drsophiayin.com/images/uploads/Litter_boxes.jpeg

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

https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/cat-behavior/litter-box-problems

http://www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/health_resources/brochure_housesoiling.cfm

http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/what-to-do-when-your-cat-poops-outside-the-box

http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/cats/tips/solving_litter_box_problems.html

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.