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




Behavior training in shelters

Graduate from a behavior class today!

Graduate from a behavior class today!

There are many methods of animal training available today.  However, some methods prove to be safer and more humane than others. Positive reinforcement training is one method that has proved humane, effective, and also strengthens the bond between animal and owner.

Positive reinforcement training identifies a desirable behavior and reinforces that behavior with reward. Clicker training is one example of positive reinforcement training. In this method, the desirable behavior is immediately associated with the sound of a clicker that is then followed with a reward, typically a delicious treat. Once the animal associates the behavior with reward, a command is introduced that names the behavior. Eventually, the animal associates the cue with the behavior and the animal learns commands. Positive reinforcement training can also be used to get rid of undesired behavior by asking for another behavior when the undesired behavior arises. These “incompatible behaviors” can teach a begging dog to lie down on a specific mat when people are in the kitchen. Positive reinforcement is both an effective and kind method of training to consider when training an animal.

Punishment is not recommended when training animals. Often, punishment follows the negative behavior by some time and the animal may not associate the two events thereby rendering the punishment less effective than reward based training. Although punishment may decrease the expression of undesired behavior, it may also cause other undesirable behaviors to arise. If a dog growls in warning when it is guarding an object and is punished, you may not be teaching the dog to not guard the object as intended. Rather, the dog may learn that it gets punished when it growls. Now the situation has become more dangerous, as the animal may not growl in warning but rather aggressively react when its object is being taken.

Unfortunately, there are many types of trainers working with shelters and in the community, some less progressive than others. While some individuals may have been in the dog training field for many years, experience does not equate to expertise. Whenever possible, it is advisable to use a certified behaviorist who uses techniques which are in alignment with your mission and beliefs. Just because a person is the only individual willing to do the job doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to do so if it will negatively impact the animals and your mission.

When adopting out an animal, adopters should be counseled on any behavioral issues that an animal may have. Resources, including basic training tips and local behavioral services can then be recommended at that time. It is therefore highly recommended to know the resources in your area, both good and bad, so that you know exactly to whom and to what method of training you are referring. Other community members that have behavior questions can also be referred to these resources. 

If you are unfamiliar with how to choose a trainer, or what those letters behind a behaviorist’s name means, then check out this guide by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

So go on and teach your cat to high five, your dog to dance, and your husband to wash the dishes!


Karen Pryor Clicker Training

Clicker Training Your Pet (ASPCA)

Knowing What’s Out There: a guide to guidelines and state law

CG-Slider-Animals-TextWe often receive questions from shelters that delve into realms of state law, animal guidelines and best practices. There can be a number of situations that arise creating concern whether a shelter is not only law abiding but also providing the most humane care possible. For instance the question is often asked as to what lay people (non-licensed veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, volunteers) are allowed to do in terms of vaccines and medical treatment. Another popular query is what, if any, legal requirements there are for transporting animals across state lines. Of course it’s impossible to keep it all straight while managing day to day adventures within the shelter. So the best advice is simply knowing when to ask questions and then finding answers through local and state law, and animal welfare organizations.

New York State

Legal jargon is difficult at best to wade through. Also interpretation can vary from person to person. For example, terminology such as ‘under direct supervision’ vs. ‘under supervision’ could mean the difference between a veterinarian needing to be present in the shelter at the time of administration of an oral dewormer versus a written deworming protocol developed by the shelter veterinarian. Laws pertaining to shelters can fall under different departments (Agriculture and Markets, Public Health, Education) so finding them all in one spot can sometimes be difficult. The link for Laws of New York under New York State Legislature has a search engine which can be helpful. I searched the word veterinarian and this is what came upThe New York State Animal Protection Foundation has a really convenient app that allows you to look up NYS laws from your smartphone. Of course county legislation should not be overlooked in terms of stray hold, seizures etc. Click here to access the Tompkins County codes.

Other States

We strongly suggest investigating your local and state laws to provide the most accurate information. However, a helpful and interesting website on a federal level provided by Michigan State University College of Law is the Animal Legal and Historical Center.  It provides full text cases, statutes and comprehensive explanations.


There’s often the expectation of a law in place to address specifics on themes like housing and transport. When in fact there are only guidelines and best practices. So when not covered by law, it’s recommended these guidelines are followed to provide the most safe and humane care possible. They have been developed by experts in the field and they are incredibly helpful.

Association of Shelter Veterinarians provides Standards of Care Guidelines and Spay Neuter Guidelines. As a shelter, we strongly urge you to read these if you have not already.

The National Federation of Humane Societies  provides best practices for transport and euthanasia.

Ultimately finding the answers will take some work. But hopefully these links will give some idea on where to start.