The Top Health Issues Facing Shelter Pets and How to Prevent Them

The Top Health Issues Facing Shelter Pets and How to Prevent Them

While the majority of shelters are doing their best to provide quality care for the animals in their care, there's no shortage of challenges that make this difficult. In this post, we'll explore some common health issues facing shelter pets and how to prevent them from happening in your shelter.


Overcrowding is a major health issue in shelters. When there are too many animals for the space, stress and aggression can result. Stress can lead to disease, and aggression can lead to disease as well. Additionally, overcrowding leads to poor sanitation because of limited access to water bowls or litter boxes.

Since you don't have control over how many animals arrive at your local shelter each day (or month), it's important that you do everything possible before adopting out your pet so that they will be ready for their new home when they get there!

Constant introduction of new, unknown animals into the "herd"

Sometimes, animals are brought into the shelter and not properly identified. This can happen when an animal comes in as a stray, or when it's not clear if an animal has been spayed or neutered. If you don't know if your pet is healthy, you might not want to bring them into contact with other pets--and vice versa.

If you want to keep your animals safe from disease, make sure that every new arrival is identified and treated before being released back into the "herd." Also keep track of all the animals currently in your shelter so that they don't spread any illnesses they may have picked up elsewhere (for example: if one dog has kennel cough and goes home with another dog who hasn't been vaccinated against this illness).

Open access and accountability to the public

The public is an important stakeholder in shelter operations. They have a right to know what is happening behind closed doors at their local animal shelters and are increasingly demanding it as they become more educated about animal welfare issues.

Inadequate healthcare programs

  • Shelters have different missions and goals, management policies, staffing constraints, budgets and resources from hospitals, kennels, laboratories or breeding facilities – for which most small-animal herd health management protocols were developed.
  • Shelter veterinarians have limited time to perform physical exams on each animal before they are euthanized or adopted out. This means that many shelter pets are not receiving the recommended yearly physicals that would allow them to be diagnosed with illnesses early enough for treatment options to be considered.
  • Shelters often lack the space needed for proper isolation of sick animals from healthy ones in order to prevent cross-contamination within a facility's population as well as spread of disease throughout communities outside its walls (e.g., when adopters bring home new pets).

Mandatory holding periods

A mandatory holding period is required by law, and it's designed to give shelter workers time to treat animals for communicable diseases. The length of this period will vary depending on the type of disease, severity, or species affected.

In some cases (for example: rabies), the mandatory holding period can be as short as 72 hours; but in other cases (like parvovirus), it may be longer than two weeks!

Limited resources

Limited resources are one of the biggest challenges facing shelters. The lack of money and space means that many animals have to be euthanized because they can't be adopted, even though they are perfectly healthy and adoptable.

Some ways you can help:

  • Donate money to your local shelter or volunteer there. They will use it to provide food, medical care and other necessities for their animals--and sometimes even expand their facilities so more pets can be saved!


Stress is a major health issue for shelter pets. Stress can lead to a number of health problems, including:

  • Skin infections and wounds
  • Digestive issues and diarrhea
  • Respiratory infections like kennel cough or pneumonia

Inadequate staff and volunteer training and high turnover

  • Staff and volunteers are the front line of defense against disease. They're the ones who handle the animals, so they need to be trained and educated about the risks and how to prevent them.
  • Motivated, engaged staff will do a much better job than uninterested or disengaged ones.
  • Proper supervision is essential: too much supervision can create resentment; too little supervision leads to mistakes that can cost lives (such as not cleaning kennels regularly).
  • Your shelter's policies should make it clear that everyone involved understands their role in helping maintain healthy pets--and what happens if they don't follow those rules?

Aging, poorly designed facilities

  • Aging, poorly designed facilities. Shelter facilities are often old and poorly designed. They're built to be functional, not comfortable--and many shelters have been built for temporary use, not long-term use.
  • Poor air quality. Dogs in overcrowded kennels can suffer from respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, which is especially common in puppies who don't yet have their adult immune systems developed enough to fight off infection on their own (which means that even if you adopt an older dog from a shelter, there's still some risk).

Inability to use tried and true methods of disease control

Shelters are unique environments with different missions, goals and management policies. They also have different staffing constraints, budgets, resources and space limitations. As such it can be difficult for shelters to implement tried-and-true methods of disease control that other facilities may use.

While all of these factors impact the ability of shelters to control infectious diseases in their facilities, there are some things you can do as an owner or volunteer that will help reduce your pet's risk.

Shelters face unique challenges that require different approaches to herd health management.

Shelters face unique challenges that require different approaches to herd health management. Shelters have different missions and goals, management policies, staffing constraints, budgets and resources from hospitals, kennels, laboratories or breeding facilities.

For example:

  • Shelters tend to be open-admission--they accept any animal brought in by the public (or other organizations). This means they are likely to see more sick animals than other facilities because the shelter is not able to screen out those who might be contagious or otherwise unwell before accepting them into their care.
  • Shelter staff often work long hours on short notice with little time off for vacation or illness themselves; this can lead to exhaustion which makes them more vulnerable when exposed directly with sick animals during an outbreak event such as parvo virus outbreak in dogs where even mild symptoms like vomiting can cause severe illness if contracted by humans without proper precautions being taken first.

We hope this article has given you some insight into the unique challenges faced by shelter pets and the people who care for them. While we may not be able to solve all of these problems, we can certainly improve our understanding of them and work toward solutions. By knowing what's out there, we can make better decisions about how to keep ourselves and our animals safe from disease outbreaks--and maybe even one day make shelters a place where everyone feels welcome again!

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