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Shelter Intake and Pathway Planning


Document Type: Information Sheet
Topics: Shelter Design and Housing and Infectious Disease
Species: Canine and Feline

Successful intake requires good shelter design, properly-trained staff, and solid, documented procedures. Appropriate pathway planning should be part of the intake process; it will lead to shorter shelter stays and improved animal health and welfare for every animal in the shelter.

Table of Contents: 

Intake capacity planning
Intake Staff
Intake area design and layout
General intake room guidelines and procedures
Intake Procedure
Housing choice and pathway planning
Intake Area Supply List

Intake procedures and evaluations are a critical control point for animals entering the shelter system. Identifying problems at intake helps:

  • Ensure each animal receives care promptly
  • Provide information to facilitate adoption, transfer or alternate placement where appropriate to help optimize length of stay (LOS)
  • Limit exposure of sick animals to the rest of the population
  • Enhance safety and welfare for animals and staff

Recognition of highly adoptable animals will help speed their way to a positive outcome. Appropriate intake pathway planning will lead to shorter shelter stays and improved animal health and welfare for every animal in the shelter.

Intake capacity planning

Estimating how many animals will arrive on any given day guides planning for sufficient intake staffing giving them the time and tools to do a great job. Comparison of daily or monthly intake to outcomes guides population management. Intake and flow-through plans must address any substantial disparity between intake and live release.

It is critical to calculate the number of animals likely to be admitted each day on a monthly basis in order to account for seasonal variations. The expected average daily intake (Monthly Daily Average, or MDA) can be calculated by dividing the number of animals admitted during a given month by the number of days in the month (see Calculating Shelter Capacity for more details).

The number of animals anticipated on a monthly basis can be determined based either on policies or schedules that control intake or on numbers and trends from previous years. (For example, if a trend of a 33% increase in intake has been seen in each previous month compared to the year prior, intake planning should assume a 33% increase in the next month.) Because these estimates are based on average numbers, there may be more or less animals entering on any given day.

Staff the intake area to meet seasonal and daily variations in intake. Time how long it takes for a trained staff member to perform an intake evaluation with all steps, as described in your protocols. Multiply the number of minutes required for each intake procedure by the MDA intake to determine staffing needs (e.g.  15 minutes * 10 cats / day = 150 minutes or 2.5 hours).

Whenever possible, plan for a team of two. Seasonal staff may be necessary in the summer to assist with the influx of cats during kitten season. When seasonal staff are utilized, pairing a highly trained intake team member with a seasonal assistant may reduce training requirements and save money. 

Intake Staff

Intake staff need training in medical and behavioral evaluation, infectious disease transmission and control, the importance of accurate data entry and population management. Intake procedures should be performed by a team if possible, for the safety of both the animals and staff. If intake staff also handle other animals already in the shelter, take precautions to minimize disease transmission to newly arrived animals, such as washing hands well and donning a clean top before performing intake.  

Intake area design and layout

Intake areas should ideally be used exclusively for intake; other areas should be designated for examination of sick animals and for euthanasia. If this is not possible, the area should never be used for both purposes simultaneously, and should be thoroughly disinfected before being used for intake. 

The intake room should be fully enclosed to prevent escapes. It should be easy to clean, and in a quiet area. A few housing units may be placed in the intake area but they should be designed such that an animal is only there for a few hours at most. Plan intake evaluations to minimize kennel moves and repeated handling (i.e. from intake house animals according to their pathway based on the intake evaluation.)

Materials should be readily available to complete an intake exam and disinfect the area for the next animal. Ideally separate intake rooms should serve dogs versus cats and other species. If this is not possible, at minimum create visual barriers and avoid processing dogs and cats at the same time, such that visual exposure of cats to dogs is minimized. Provide elevated shelves or counters to place cat carriers on so they do not have to remain on the floor, and cover carriers at all times. Do not leave dogs tethered in intake areas unattended. 

General intake room guidelines and procedures

  • Clean and disinfect exam surfaces, holding areas and carriers between animals with a parvocidal product such as Accel®
  • Clean and disinfect the whole area at least daily with a parvocial product and after contamination by a sick animal
  • House all incoming healthy animals in clean, disinfected housing units away from sick animals

Intake procedure

Individual shelters must assess the needs of their population to determine exact intake steps. Some critical steps include the following:

  • Provide every person who turns in an animal with a history profile form. Information provided by an owner or even a person who has found an animal can be very valuable in determining that animal’s needs and helping plan the animal’s ultimate disposition.
  • Assess the animal initially before removing the animal from its cage or carrier
  • Scan for microchip and look carefully for other identification
  • Estimate the age and sex of the animal – training must be given and tools provided in the intake area to assist with this (e.g. ASPCA Pro Kitten Aging reference, UF Puppy aging sheet, Animal Sheltering Dog and Cat aging sheet, Animal Sheltering Reference for how to sex cats)
  • Weigh the animal
  • Complete a brief physical exam including a Wood’s lamp exam and any other initial screening tests as indicated by the needs of your population and shelter layout (e.g. retrovirus testing for cats prior to placement in group housing)
  • Include, and note, an assessment of the animal's behavior during the physical exam and vaccination process.  Some shelters have moved to using the animal’s intake behavior as their behavior evaluation such that friendly animals without concern are not given a full traditional behavior evaluation to free up time to spend on animals who are exhibiting behavioral concerns.
  • Vaccinate with core vaccines (see Vaccination in Shelters for more details)
    • Note date for revaccination in the animal's record, if needed
    • Reconstitute vaccines on an as-needed basis. Use reconstituted vaccines within 20 minutes of mixing and store in the refrigerator during that time.  If vaccines sit longer than 20 minutes, discard and pull up new vaccines.
  • De-worm/apply external parasite control--see our Summary of Ectoparasite Treatments.
    • Note date for retreatment for internal or external parasites in the animal's record, if needed.
  • Take a photograph that clearly shows the animal's face and any identifying features.
    • The photo should be on the cage card and immediately uploaded to the shelter’s website to be viewable by the public looking for their lost pet
  • Communicate to medical team and provide appropriate housing for sick and injured animals promptly
  • Assign an initial pathway plan including initial housing location
  • Accurately enter all information about the animals and observations into the shelter’s software system (e.g. Chameleon, PetPoint, Shelter Buddy) to allow for efficient communication and animal tracking
    • All staff must be trained on how to input information accurately into the shelter’s software system
  • Print out a cage card
  • In addition to computer records, information can also be recorded on paper records

Housing choice and pathway planning

Designate a plan and housing area for the following categories of animals:

  • Puppies and kittens under 6-8 weeks of age (eligible for foster care)
    • Easy to disinfect
    • Used only for short term housing
  • Puppies and kittens between 6-8 weeks and 5 months of age (youngsters eligible for adoption)
    • Prioritize compartmentalized housing units if not all units are compartmentalized to allow for minimal handling during cleaning to reduce risk of fomite transmission of infectious disease
    • Easy to disinfect
  • Animals for immediate transfer
  • Candidates for immediate adoption
  • Candidates for open selection (animals to be on view to the public during their stray hold to expedite adoption selection)
  • Sick animals with infectious disease
    • Isolate in a separate room/ward if possible or remove from the population
    • When possible, separate animals for infectious skin disease, GI disease, and respiratory disease
  • Non-infectious injured or sick animals
  • Dangerous animals or those requiring quarantine
  • Feral animals/animals for return to field
  • Stray animals with identification (tags, microchip, recently groomed, etc.) likely to be reclaimed
  • Other required holding
  • Animals to be euthanized

See the webinar on Fast Tracking to Save Lives to learn more about how these practices have worked for shelters and read the information sheet on Facility Design and Shelter Housing to learn more about housing.

Intake Area Supply List

It is imperative for intake rooms to be fully stocked with all necessary equipment and tools to allow intake to be safe and efficient for both the animals and the staff.  Having to leave the intake room is frustrating for staff as it interrupts the flow of this incredibly important process.

  • Non-porous easily cleaned, stable exam surface
  • Computer +/- a printer (for cage cards)
  • Clean scrub or uniform top for staff who has worked with other animals in the shelter
  • Disposable gloves
  • Universal microchip scanner
  • Scale – floor type for dogs and table top type for cats and really small dogs/puppies
  • Digital camera
  • Picture station
  • Refrigerator for vaccines and diagnostic tests only
  • Vaccines
  • Syringes
  • Adverse vaccine reaction response kit including protocols and instructions
  • Parvo SNAP tests
  • Intake treatments (e.g. de-worming, external parasite control)
  • Parvocidal disinfectant product (e.g.  Accel®)
  • Disinfectant soap/water or at least 60% alcohol disinfectant for hands
  • Paper towels or one use ‘raglets’
  • Towels or cut up sheets to cover cat carriers
  • Thermometer and disposable covers
  • Clippers
  • Safety restraint equipment
    • Muzzles
    • Leashes
    • Nets
  • Telephone, call button
  • Flea comb
  • Cotton tipped swabs
  • Woods lamp
  • Penlight
  • Stethoscope
  • Diagnostic sample collection supplies (if staff is trained on how to use)
    • Skin scrape spatula, syringes, swabs
    • Fecal float
    • Blood collection tubes
  • Ear cleaner
  • Nail clippers

To learn more about intake please see Drs. Newbury and Balanoff’s 2015 HSUS Expo presentation on The Shelter Handshake – Mastering the Art of Intake.