Research & Data

A man kneeling on the floor with a tan dog at the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in New York City

New Normal, New Data

How to use data to prove the community-supported sheltering model
By Andie Peart

The coronavirus pandemic has turned animal sheltering on its head. During this revolutionary period, the public has stepped up to support shelters, and the concept of animal-fostering is now household knowledge. They’ve proven what we’ve long known: communities are the solution to pet homelessness.

Given what we’ve seen from the public since March, we should feel confident talking to our communities about how our new normal won’t be like the old one. The pre-COVID sheltering system grew out of a rabies control, hold-and-destroy model that no longer fits in our society.  In this post-pandemic world, impoundment is the exception, not the rule. Pets—whether they are lost temporarily or in need of a new permanent home—are much better-served by the community-supported shelter model that has grown organically out of crisis.

And shelters have the data to prove it.

Foster Homes
High-Priority Intake
In-Home Bite Quarantine
Fee-Waived Reclaims
Intake Diversion
Resource Library
Friendly Finders

Down to the data

The Shelter Animals Count (SAC) Basic Data Matrix (BDM) is still the number one tool for reporting your shelter’s data. In fact, if you are behind on reporting in SAC or haven’t signed up yet, now is a great time to have a remote employee pull the information out of your shelter’s data management system and enter it into the BDM. Note that the most critical data points you should compare on a year over year basis are intake and non-live outcome numbers (non-live outcomes are euthanasia, owner-requested euthanasia, died in care and lost in care).

Once the BDM is up to date, review how your new services are positively impacting your shelter’s operations, budget and outcomes.

Your foster homes are what will make permanent change possible. Foster homes are imperative for increasing capacity, providing specialized care for the most vulnerable populations and promoting adoptions in the community.  But don’t let the fact that your community is supporting your shelter even more now than ever divert tax dollars from your shelter budget.

Make your case by tracking the following on a year-over-year basis:

  • Number of active foster homes
  • Average cost of care for sheltered animals versus those in foster
  • Length of stay (LOS) in foster versus LOS in shelter
  • Percentage of pets rehomed from foster care

Do you have enough staff to properly care for the number of animals your shelter accepts annually? In most cases the answer is likely no. According to National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA) guidelines, the minimal amount of time that should be spent feeding and cleaning is 15 minutes per animal, per day.

To determine your ideal staffing capacity, follow this formula:

  1. [Avg. Number of Animals] x 15 minutes = # of minutes of staff time daily
  2. [# minutes of staff time daily]/60 = # of hours of staff time daily
  3. [# of hours of staff time daily]/8 = minimum number of FT animal care employees per day

Use this information to make the case against cuts to your staffing budget. Even if you have a few extra people, you can justify their need due to reducing intake to high-priority cases which are likely to require more than 15 minutes of care per day because they have medical or behavioral needs and/or require careful handling.

Think beyond just feeding and care requirements to include duties involved with enrichment and/or behavior modification programs, which increase live outcomes and offer job satisfaction to your employees (and thus influence staff retention).

According to NACA, high-priority intakes should be limited to “law enforcement assistance,injured or sick stray animals, cruelty and neglect complaints, bite complaints and dangerous and aggressive dog complaints.”

 For any other animal situation, there are generally one or more solutions that don’t involve impoundment that result in a more desirable housing arrangement than the shelter. These can include setting up an appointment for intake at another time, implementing a “friendly finder” foster program, using volunteers to post on social media about lost pets or sending them directly to foster care.

Now, more than ever, it is important for all animal organizations within a community to work together. If one shelter simply transfers all intake responsibility to another shelter, the issue in the community remains the same.

The nature of high-priority intake may be your most controversial argument. Public push-back against implementing this model will likely stem from the fear that more strays equal more dangerous animals in the community; the public also assumes that if shelters don’t collect all free-roaming animals off the streets, those strays will die inhumanely.

It is critical to have the data to support your shelter’s decision to shift to this model, so be sure to track:

  • The number of bite cases that were reported during the pandemic as compared to the same time period in the previous year
    • Exclude instances where the bites were inflicted within the pet’s home from your comparison, as these animals would not be included as part of a dangerous stray population.
  • Calls for emergency assistance during closure vs prior
  • Calls for deceased animal pickup
  • Comparison of emergency intakes due to suspected hit-by-car cases

If your community does not have a stray cat ordinance and/or community cat program, do not include stray cats in these figures since they aren’t part of your service agreement.

Pro-tip: Check out how Memphis Animal Services uses a flexible tiered intake model to determine intake priority.

If your shelter does not already have a program to quarantine owned pets within the home for minor bites/scratches, consider implementing one. Families are better equipped to identify abnormal behavior in their pet within the home and the option can eliminate the possibility of failure to reclaim and saves resources. When combined with a high-priority intake model, it gives animal control officers (ACOs) more time to monitor these cases as well. 

In-home bite quarantine is always at the discretion of the agency. If you decide to allow for in-home quarantine of select cases, make sure you explain the reason for a 10-day quarantine and educate the family about how to monitor their pet for signs of rabies.

You should track:

  • Number of rabies-positive bite cases (felines and canines) during closure vs prior
  • Number of quarantines completed that resulted in positive vs negative rabies results
  • Number of bite quarantine cases that were not reclaimed by their owner
    • Cost of care for unclaimed bite quarantine cases
  • Reduction in euthanasia of bite case animals year over year
  • Average hours of case work per quarantine animal

For animals who must be admitted into shelter care, consider waiving fees and providing free spay/neuter and microchipping for owners who are unable to pay for impoundment. Charging fees, whether as punishment for irresponsible behavior or as an incentive for people to manage their pets differently in the future, does not work. The cost of shelter care for the animal to the point of reclaim is collateral damage—you can either end up with an animal or a positive outcome.

You should track:

  • Costs absorbed by fee-waived reclamations
  • Repeat stray/bite offenders
  • Service costs provided in lieu of abandonment
  • Impound fees collected
  • Number of payment plans instituted
  • Use of pay-later technology (i.e. Scratch Pay, Vet Billing, CareCard)

Start recording all your service calls, not just those that end in impoundment. Any service you provide that helps a family keep their pet or provides an alternative housing solution comes at a cost to your organization. It may be staff time, surgery cost, microchips implanted, food donated or even a pet-deposit paid on behalf of a renter. Each of these impacts your budget in some way, even if it’s only staff time.

 You should track:

  • Resources distributed (food, kennels, vaccines, microchips issued, etc.)
  • Medical support (low- and no-cost services)
  • ACO calls to scene with return in the field outcomes
  • Percentage of over-the-counter intake diverted
    • Calculation: # served over the counter without intake / total served over the counter

Develop a web page that details all the owner-retention services you provide. Your 311 and owner-retention calls can easily be directed to this website; traffic to the website can be tracked easily as well.

You should track:

  • Number of animal-related *311 calls
  • Resource library website traffic
  • Emails for animal assistance

Pro-tip: Ask your local media to promote what assistance you have available in conjunction with the message that taking animals to the shelter isn’t the only solution.

People finding pets and caring for them until they find their owner is nothing new. By implementing a friendly finder program, all you are doing is encouraging that act and providing a platform to make it easier.  The pet should be listed in an online database and people who are looking for lost pets should be directed to the database to search for their animal.

You should track:

  • Animal Outcome
    • Number whose owners were found by the finders
    • Number that the finders adopted themselves
    • Number that the finders rehomed
    • Number that found new adoptive homes through shelter staff
    • Reduction in euthanasia vs friendly finder
  • Cost
    • Impoundment vs friendly finder
    • Resources provided to finder

1. Take a look at LifeLine Animal Project’s friendly-finder program to see how they have implemented this program and provide resources to the people in their community who are willing to help.  
2. Have your finders use the free Adoptimize tool to get better photos of the pets. 


Back to the basics




High-Priority Intake Only

Bite Quarantine at Home

Owner resources provided

Fee-waived Reclaims

Friendly Finders

Behavior Modification and Enrichment

Resource Library

Free/Low-Cost Medical Support

Return in the Field

Foster Care = increased capacity

Reduction in intake and reduction in shelter deaths go together and both require some tweaks to the usual order of business since the pandemic upended our world. As holds true in so much of animal welfare, it’s not going to be easy, but change is necessary for improvement. And necessity is the mother of invention.

So dig in, hold your ground and use your data to push back against returning to your old ways—the animals and the community will both thank you for it.