A New Model for Pet Intake

Understanding the true reasons for pets entering today’s shelter

Roughly eight million cats and dogs entered animal shelters in the U.S. in 2023, according to Shelter Animals Count–and the numbers don’t show much sign of slowing. Since the inception of Human Animal Support Services (HASS), we’re aiming for a better understanding of the downstream effect human hardships have on overcrowded animal shelters. It’s no secret that people are struggling and when people struggle, so do their pets, which are found in 66% of U.S. households . As families across the country seek support for housing, utilities, and food , the animal welfare industry should ask ourselves: What do families need to support their pets as well?

This is a difficult question to answer on an individual basis, let alone when trying to answer in an entire community. That’s why HASS has spent the last few years working closely with our pilot animal shelters and alongside industry experts to gain an in-depth understanding of the information needed to bridge the gap between what people and pets need and what support a community currently offers. And just as importantly, why our industry doesn’t have the information needed to fully answer this question yet.

While we know that supporting families in keeping their pets requires programmatic and policy solutions, the current welfare model simply is not good enough to truly understand the factors that are resulting in a never-ending stream of intake, thus forcing shelters to continue to react rather than pursue proactive solutions. In the face of this complexity, shelter staff report that owners often express multiple reasons for relinquishing an animal, and it is difficult to select a single reason as required by the shelter databases. Research has also shown that data is not even recorded consistently across shelter team members , lending to even more opportunities for individual bias and error in the information desperately needed to understand the needs in our communities. To compound this issue, most intake staff are not adequately trained to have conversations with people experiencing hardship in the way we see for staff in human-services jobs. 

That’s where the work HASS has been doing with industry experts on understanding how to get to the why is coming together this year, in a project we call  “Intake Triage.” Simply put, we aim to improve the intake process through a people-oriented model that allows a way for better data collection while also supporting clients using a trauma-informed approach. The information collected through this new model will allow for a deeper understanding of how best to take action to help communities fill resource gaps and slow the flow of animals into already overcrowded shelters. 

Challenges to Overcome

In the coming months, HASS will collaborate with four HASS pilot shelters to develop and test a new model for pet intake that more closely aligns with human services approaches to healthcare triage, utilizing best practices in trauma-informed care. The initiative will review the many barriers shelters face in collecting intake data, test our method for collecting more in-depth information about the circumstances leading to the need for intake, and study best practices for client-centered approaches that already exist to establish a gold standard approach that can be adopted in any intake lobby.

A large part of the strategy for this project will be to address the especially challenging need for intake data to reflect the complexity of the issues that lead to pet relinquishment. Shelters generally do an adequate job of collecting data on intake types (Stray, Owner Surrender, etc.), but have traditionally not recorded the details well, or the intake “subtype” and “reason,” of why animals show up at their doors–leaving a considerable and critical information gap.  

Since most shelter management software currently does not offer a clear way to record the complexity of circumstances behind a pet’s surrender, nor to report on them in aggregate so that shelters may gain an understanding of what support is missing for pet owners in their communities, shelter leadership and researchers alike find it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions or point to potential solutions using the data currently available. A recent study of the reasons why owners relinquish pets has stated, “Because just one reason was reported in most cases, the possibility of several reasons playing a role could not be considered via our findings.”

Project Strategy 

To address these issues, the HASS team  created a set of standardized questionnaires and interview processes for the participating pilot shelters of the Intake Triage Project, that support understanding  what causes pets to enter shelters in more detail and with more consistency, creating a workaround for navigating current shelter software limitations. These tools have been years in the making and have involved extensive discussions with industry leaders and experts in various kinds of shelter intake. Amongst these, HASS is working in collaboration with Shelter Animals Count on animal-level data. Together, we have shared our recommendations for intake subtypes and reasons so that intake data can begin to be standardized at a national level as well. HASS has also worked with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to include intake questions related to housing, a special interest of HSUS, and collaborated with them on a project described below in Greenville County, South Carolina.  

Intake Triage Project Progress

In January, HASS launched the newest iteration of owner surrender data collection at HASS pilot shelter, Greenville County Animal Care (GCAC), the largest open-admission animal facility in South Carolina and an industry leader in connecting families with resources to support the community in keeping their pets. Despite GCAC’s success in keeping pets with their families, the number of pets surrendered by families has increased in recent years, as is the case at many other shelters across the U.S.

Upon determination of GCAC’s specific needs and goals, HASS and HSUS launched a dual-data collection initiative at GCAC, with HASS focused on gathering a more in-depth understanding of factors leading to owners relinquishing pets and HSUS focused on circumstances related to housing as a factor for giving up pets. Specifically, HASS worked alongside GCAC staff to incorporate best data collection practices into their pre-existing intake and case management process. 

This included:

  • Trauma-informed conversational interview techniques to identify root causes for owner relinquishment and a better understanding of the needs in their community that are leading owned pets to their facility. 
  • Onsite staff training on socio-economic factors for intake and insights into Greenville’s existing data. 
  • On-the-job training for data collection and interview techniques.

Preliminary Results

As 2024 continues, HASS will launch the next iteration of this project at three more organizations, expanding beyond relinquished pets to include those brought in as lost or stray pets. The project’s goals are to:

  •  Expand our understanding of the complex human factors that lead to pets being brought to animal shelters.
  • Align intake processes more closely with human services approaches to triage. 
  • Use information collected at intake to make strategic decisions on how to keep pets with their families.

Armed with this data, we can tailor our policy advocacy to the most significant issues, utilize our resources to help more people and their pets, and reduce the burden on animal welfare organizations in these communities.

“I learned a lot about how [intake] data is used in animal welfare to support pet owners and shelters. Exploring the impact of socio-economic factors nationwide was really interesting and insightful.”

– GCAC Intake Staff


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