Cat Care Standards

While groups and agencies can disagree on specifics (e.g., which brand of food is best, whether harnesses or collars are preferable), there are five fundamental freedoms to which every animal is entitled:
Table of Contents

Section 1: The Five Freedoms

Section 2: Standards for Primary Enclosures

Section 3: Physical Well-Being
Vaccinations and Parasite Control
Disease Prevention
Working with a Veterinarian

Section 4: Mental Well-Being

Section 5: Veterinary and Euthanasia Policies
Veterinary Policy
Euthanasia Policy
Sample Euthanasia Policy
Circumstances that may require euthanasia
Medical Issues
Behavioral Issues
How we make the decision to euthanize
How the animal is euthanized

Section 6: Appendix

Section 1: The Five Freedoms

All animals need ready access to fresh water and a diet that allows them to maintain full health and vigor. This must be specific to the animal. For example, a puppy, an adult dog, a pregnant cat and a senior cat would all need different types of food provided on different schedules.

All animals need an appropriate living environment, including protection from the elements, and a clean, safe and comfortable resting area. Animals must be provided with bedding and not sleep on a cold hard floor. Overcrowding will increase an animal’s physical discomfort and should be avoided. Do not forget about temperature and environmental factors, such as noise levels and access to natural light. And if an animal is outside, it must have shelter from the elements as well as appropriate food and water bowls that will not freeze or tip over.

All animals must be afforded care that prevents illness and injury, and that assures rapid diagnosis and treatment if illness/injury should occur. This entails vaccinating animals, monitoring animals’ physical health, rapidly treating any injuries and providing appropriate medications for treatment and pain.

All animals need sufficient space and proper facilities to allow them to move freely and fully, and to engage in the same types of activities as other animals of their species. They also need to be able to interact with—or avoid—others of their own kind as desired. They must able to stretch every part of their body (from nose to tail), run, jump and play at will. Are you overcrowded? Are you housing too many animals in one room? If so, the animals are probably unable to experience the fourth freedom.

All animals need both a general environment and handling that allows them to avoid mental suffering and stress. The mental health of an animal is just as important as its physical health. Are you providing sufficient enrichment? Allowing the animal to hide in a safe space when needed? Ensuring that there is not too much noise? Are there too many animals in one room? Remember, psychological stress can quickly transition into physical illness.
The Five Freedoms were first articulated by England’s Farm Animal Welfare Council, but they apply to every type of animal in every type of setting, including shelters, rescues and even private homes. Most organizations tend to do a good job of providing Freedoms 1, 2 and 3, but 4 and 5, which focus more on an animal’s psychological needs, tend to be overlooked. It is important to examine your operations from the perspective of the animals in your care. If each and every animal is not receiving all Five Freedoms, you must reexamine your policies and procedures, and you certainly must not take any new animals into your program until the situation is resolved.
The Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters (“ASV GSC”), which despite the title was developed for “traditional brick and mortar shelters, sanctuaries, and home-based foster or rescue networks,” are our profession’s most useful tool, largely because they are premised on the Five Freedoms. The guidelines should be used as your touch point for answering every question from “Is my animal housing humane?” to “Is my organization trying to care for too many animals?” The operating guidelines below are adapted from the ASV GSC, and following them is necessary to ensure the Five Freedoms. Note that these are minimal considerations, not complete operational plans. We recommend that you read the ASV GSC in its entirety.

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Section 2: Standards for Primary Enclosures

The physical space that will serve as an animal’s primary enclosure, the place where he will eat, sleep and spend the majority of his time, must be safe, sanitary, and of sufficient size to provide a humane quality of life. IMPORTANT: Cages, crates, and carriers that are intended for travel or short-term, temporary confinement are unacceptable as primary enclosures; it is also unacceptable to keep animals on wire or slatted flooring.

Ensuring that an animal has adequate space can be a challenge, particularly when several animals are kept in the same room or when an animal must be confined in a kennel or cage. Regardless of the type of housing used, every animal must be able to:

Stand up, sit down and lie down comfortably
Stretch fully from tip of front toes to back toes
Carry her tail in normal carriage (for cats and certain breeds of dogs that means having tail fully extended)
Engage in normal sleeping, eating/drinking and urinating/defecating behaviors (most animals prefer not to eliminate near where they eat and sleep, so allowing sufficient space to distinguish a “potty area” is important)
Assume normal posture when sleeping, eating/drinking, and urinating/ defecating
See out of the enclosure, but also avoid being seen

For cats kept in cages, it is vital to ensure that their enclosure allows them to hold their tails in normal posture (straight up) and lets them stretch from the tips of their front toes all the way to their back toes. While the ASV GSC states that there must be at least two feet of triangulated distance between cats’ food/water, bedding and litter box areas†, this is a bare minimum, and they should have as much space as possible. When cats are housed in groups, each requires a minimum of 18 square feet of floor space, and regardless of the size of the room, ASV GSC recommends a maximum of 10–12 cats per room.

In addition to size, there are other factors to be considered in determining whether an animal’s environment is humane. Inside the enclosure, the animal must have a comfortable place to sleep—typically that means soft towels or bedding materials on a bed or other platform raised off the floor. They should also have toys, particularly those that provide mental as well as physical stimulation. Cats need places to hide, scratching posts, and options for sleeping and perching (they prefer to be off the floor, so vertical space is a must). The longer the animal will stay in your care, the more mentally and physically stimulating her primary housing area must be.

The environment in which the primary enclosure is located is equally important. For instance, the animal must have an appropriate temperature (sled dogs used to living in cold environments will have vastly different temperature needs than newborn kittens or sick animals). The American Veterinary Medical Association (“AVMA”) recommends ambient temperatures between 60–80 degrees, but individual animals may have needs outside that range. Fresh air is important and can help prevent disease. Appropriate lighting is vital—just like people, animals need regular light/dark cycles to support healthy sleep patterns. And while adding music can be soothing and help mask unpleasant sounds like barking and electronic machinery, animals should also have periods of quiet to facilitate rest. Consult your executive directors for guidance on establishing the appropriate environment for the animals in your care.

Animals’ primary housing areas must also be safe and able to be thoroughly sanitized. Ensure that there are no sharp edges on cages and that there are no gaps or spaces where a pet’s head or paw might get stuck. If animals will be kept in foster homes, encourage care providers to look around the entire area and remove any breakables, items that they do not want potentially soiled or damaged and items that may be hazardous to a pet (e.g., poisonous houseplants, exposed electrical cords, trash, household cleaners). You may want to encourage foster providers to invest in outlet safety plugs and childproof latches for drawers and cabinet

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Section 3: Physical Well-Being

Appropriate health care, including routine and preventative care, should be provided to all animals within our organization. Track and record typical indicators of health like weight, temperature and body condition score, but also pay attention to anything that seems out of the ordinary for the animal, as this may be an indication that something is wrong. Create a list of health issues to look for with your executive directors, draft a written protocol for foster providers and document any health issues you suspect an animal may have.

To prevent the spread of disease and safeguard the public (including foster homes), immediately isolate any animal showing signs of contagious disease. Have medical contact information readily available for all foster providers in case of an emergency, and provide fosters with clear guidance as to what is considered normal, what symptoms are indicators of illness and what symptoms require immediate veterinary attention.

Ensuring that all animals are appropriately vaccinated is a critical part of running a safe and humane rescue organization. In addition, animals need protection against parasites (e.g., fleas, heartworm) and zoonotic diseases (diseases that can spread between species, such as ringworm). Consult your executive directors to determine what vaccinations and medications should be given to the animals on a routine basis.

Remember that animals may arrive with diseases that are difficult to remove from the environment (like ringworm or parvo), so limiting them to places that can be completely and easily disinfected is essential. In shelter settings it is recommended that all surfaces, including walls and floors, be made of non-porous materials so disinfectants like bleach can be easily applied (and remember to always clear all organic material before applying bleach—otherwise the bleach can be deactivated). In foster home situations, that can prove more difficult. Bedding and other materials should be routinely washed with bleach and machine dried to kill any viruses. Creative holding options like children’s baby pools and pet exercise pens can be useful, particularly when managing puppies and kittens. While foster settings are definitely more challenging in terms of thorough sanitation, the risks may be outweighed by the benefits of the stress-reduction achieved by keeping the animal in a home setting. Talk with your executive directors about the best isolation protocols to follow.

Ideally, every animal should be sterilized prior to adoption. Some rescue groups will have an adopter pay an extra deposit that is returned upon proof that the animal has been spayed or neutered. This system does not ensure 100% compliance, and it requires our organization to spend extra time and resources on follow-up. Pediatric spay/neuter is safe, effective and becoming common practice. All animals that are older than eight weeks, weigh at least two pounds and are healthy should be sterilized prior to adoption. However, do not let strict adherence to this rule undermine a potentially successful adoption. If an animal is too unhealthy for surgery, your team may want to hold off on finalizing the adoption until after she has recovered in her new home and been altered. Get a letter from a veterinarian or executive director that details the animal’s condition if the animal will always be too unhealthy for spay/neuter. This is particularly important in areas that have different licensing requirements for altered and unaltered pets.

SOXrescue does have a spay policy regarding pregnant pets – WE DO NOT SPAY ANY PREGNANT FELINE. With so many homeless animals across the country, resource constraints can make it difficult to rescue all the animals in danger while also providing for newborns. This can become a difficult ethical situation and having a policy in place beforehand makes it easier to deal with when it does crop up. While some organizations may feel strongly one way or another, other organizations may feel comfortable with a middle ground—for example, not terminating a pregnancy that is more than halfway through the gestation period. We just don’t do it.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association only 22% of lost dogs and fewer than 2% of lost cats that enter shelters are reunited with their families. Those statistics are drastically different for microchipped pets. More than 52% of microchipped dogs and more than 38% of microchipped cats are returned home. However, further research reveals that only 58% of the animals’ microchips are registered in a database with the owner’s contact information, making nearly half of the chips ineffective in helping pets return home.

SOXrescue tries to ensure that all adopted animals are microchipped and encourages adopters to register and update it with their current contact information and list our organization as the second contact. This way, if the animal becomes lost and the microchip does not have current contact information, SOXrescue will be notified. In addition to microchipping, you should put a collar and an identification tag on all animals, including indoor cats, before they go to their new homes. Animals in foster care and those attending adoption events should also wear collars with identification.

Just like many people, some animals have specific dietary needs to accommodate issues such as food allergies or a need for weight management. Have an executive director assess each animal’s dietary needs to provide a proper diet. The following are standards for providing nutritious food and water:
Animals should have access to fresh, clean water at all times and it should be changed at least daily.
Animals should have access to nutritious food at an amount appropriate for the animal’s age, weight and health. Conduct research and talk to your executive directors to determine the best food for your pets. There are resources that can help you determine how much food to give your pets as well as which foods are appropriate.
Throw out uneaten food after a maximum of 24 hours.
Store food to protect it from spoiling as well as from insects and rodents.

Veterinarians are critical partners in helping our organization carry out our mission, so it is important to build relationships early on. In addition to having a partner for spay/neuter procedures, many of the animals in our organization will need extensive veterinary care before they can be considered adoptable. Some things you will need a veterinarian for are spay/neuter, general care, emergency care, preventative medications such as flea/tick and heartworm medication, standard and rabies vaccinations as well as implanting microchips. Some rescue groups prefer to work with veterinarians who have experience in shelter medicine as they may be more familiar with the types of issues the animals in their care experience.

While many veterinarians choose their profession because they love animals, they are also business owners and have a bottom line to manage. They have real and legitimate financial concerns, especially in a down economy, and rescue groups need to respect that. Because of these concerns, you may find resistance from some veterinarians who are wary of losing money or have been burned by another rescue group in the past. Be mindful when approaching them to partner with your organization and aim to build a mutually beneficial and successful relationship. You should be honest and upfront with what you will need from a veterinarian and continue to have an open dialogue along the way.

You should certainly expect veterinarians that you work with to provide the same level of care to your organization’s pets as they do to their full-paying clients. Perhaps the veterinarian can only offer you discounted prices if your organization is limited to a certain number of visits per month. That arrangement can work as long as you establish partnerships with other veterinarians as well. Go through services and prices and put your agreement in writing, including names of individuals authorized to approve veterinarian appointments and care. This will help prevent misunderstandings before they occur. And make sure you highlight how working with your organization will be beneficial for the veterinarian’s practice by referring adopters. For veterinarians who are just starting out, partnering with a rescue group is a great way to quickly gain experience in a wide array of skills.

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Section 4: Mental Well-Being

Animal welfare organizations tend to focus their attention on the first three freedoms, ensuring their animals receive proper nutrition, veterinary care and adequate shelter. But the last two freedoms are equally important, and our organization must take steps to ensure that each animal’s mental well-being receives just as much attention as the physical. Ensuring the mental health of the animals in our organization’s care is just as important as ensuring their physical welfare.

Failure to meet Freedoms 4 (freedom to express normal behavior) and 5 (freedom from fear and distress) cause animals to experience stress, and stress translates directly into disease, which can increase veterinarian bills, decrease adoptability and put a strain on your entire organization. Therefore, it is in your best interest to make sure that the animals in your care stay as stress-free as possible.

Even though many animals are stoic, meaning they do not disclose early symptoms of distress or disease, there are behaviors that to the careful observer indicate stress:

Urinating/defecating on bedding
Extreme overstimulation or fear response at the sight of people or other animals
Barrier/kennel aggression
Repetitive behaviors (e.g., pacing, spinning, licking)
Being shut down, unresponsive, withdrawn or hiding
Under- or over-grooming
Not eating
Using the “litter box lounge” (it is not normal for cats to lay in their litter box)
Excessive or inappropriate vocalizing (especially loud/ repetitive sounds)

Remember, you need to know what is normal to recognize what is not. If a cat that normally is very vocal suddenly stops “talking,” or if a dog that normally greets people politely in the kennel suddenly starts lunging or barking, those could be indicators of stress. All signs of stress should be addressed immediately, either by adding enrichment to relieve boredom, removing the stressor (e.g., placing the animal in a quieter room) and/or obtaining veterinary attention.

Enrichment is not a “nice extra” for animals awaiting new homes; it is so important that the ASV GSC expressly states that it is not optional:

The purpose of enrichment is to reduce stress and improve well-being by providing physical and mental stimulation, encouraging species- typical behaviors (e.g. scratching for cats), and allowing animals more control over their environment…. Enrichment should be given the same significance as other components of animal care, such as nutrition and veterinary care, and should not be considered optional.

The good news is enrichment does not have to involve a lot of time, expense or expertise.

Easy automatics
There are ways to provide enrichment almost automatically, just by incorporating them into cage/kennel setups and the general environment. Items like hiding boxes for cats, toilet paper rolls for rodents, scratching posts for colony rooms and safe chew toys for dogs, can all be incorporated into your basic cage/kennel setups right along with food and water bowls. Putting up window perches for cats, playing a nature video, or perhaps even installing a fish tank, can be “add-ons” that all residents of a room can find stimulating and enjoy.

Using enrichment techniques to help make cleaning and other processes easier is another way to incorporate enrichment without adding undue burdens. Give cats interactive toys to distract them while their cages are spot-cleaned.

In-cage enrichment
For most people, shelter/rescue volunteering and “dog walking” are synonymous, and that is definitely a much needed service for animals living in kennels or cages. But walking alone is not truly enrichment—in fact, it can actually be detrimental. Kenneled dogs often jump and carry on at the front of their cage when people come by—why? Because the only excitement in their day is when a person arrives and takes them out. But kenneled dogs may spend 20+ hours each day inside their kennel, and caged cats usually spend all of their time in that space, so should not that be the place they want to be and feel most comfortable?

It is not difficult to enrich the inside of a kennel/cage for a cat awaiting a new home:

Add objects like caps, paper bags, tissue paper or empty boxes to cages.
Place treats in tin foil and ball it up, so the cat can not only bat it around but also work to open it and find the goodies.
Grow fresh cat grass or catnip.
Groom cats inside their cages.
Put catnip inside socks or strips of fleece and knot them.
Stuff tuna or other treats inside an old toilet paper tube, then plug the tube with tissue paper as an extra obstacle for the cat to remove.
Put strips of carpet or scratching posts inside the cage.
Feed wet food in half of a plastic “Easter” egg to make the cats work to get the food out.
Read or do paperwork while sitting in the kennel.
Don’t be afraid to come up with new ideas – search on sites like Google, look for articles, etc. Be creative.

Enrichment does not have to be fancy or expensive. The key is to be creative and give animals activities and toys that not only prompt physical stimulation, but also engage their brains and require them to problem solve.

Out-of-cage enrichment
Enrichments that provide both mental and physical stimulation should also be provided outside of the animal’s cage/kennel. Dog walks, for example, are often either just a quick potty break or a long hike designed to tire the dog out physically. Both opportunities are important, but how often do dogs catch on and take longer and longer to potty, knowing that once they do they will immediately have to go back inside? And while long hikes are exhausting, they are also physically conditioning the dog to need longer and harder workouts to achieve the same results. Trips outside the kennel should not be just for exercise, they should provide opportunities to engage the animal’s brain. Reinforcing polite walking manners, for example, or using clicker training to teach a new skill not only engages the mind, it helps increase the dog’s adoptability. And it does not have to be all work—creating scent trails for dogs to follow, or letting them dig for treats in sandboxes or wading pools, allows them to expend energy and use their senses.

You can also engage cats both physically and mentally. Believe it or not, cats can be clicker trained just as easily as dogs! And there is an added benefit to engaging cats— research shows that people are most likely to adopt a cat that engages with them and initiates a physical connection. Thus, encouraging cats to approach people and even teaching them to politely paw at passersby can be lifesaving!

Other stress relievers
For animals whose stress is not relieved by enrichment alone, there are other techniques you can use. Sometimes just changing their location can make all the difference. If an animal needs a quieter space, moving him away from sources of noise and stress can help; conversely, for the dog that needs lots of stimulation, putting her in a kennel right in the center of the action can do the trick. Some groups swear by products like Feliway and Comfort Zone, which simulate natural calming pheromones. Thundershirts are available for both cats and dogs to help relieve anxiety, and music and techniques like Tellington Touch (TTouch) and Reiki can be used to calm anxious animals. Medications are viewed by many as a last resort, but an argument can be made that animals are better off being successfully medicated before their stress behaviors become lasting bad habits. Talk with your executive directors about options and protocols.

Not too long ago, fosters were warned to keep foster pets far away from their own pets and children to avoid spreading disease. Puppies, in particular, were to be kept isolated until they had their full series of vaccinations. Nowadays, we know that the benefits of proper socialization far outweigh the risks to anyone involved. Of course it is vital to ensure that all pets are properly vaccinated and that all interactions are closely monitored, but helping to ensure that foster pets are well acclimated to all types of animals, people and environments is a critical component of preparing them for successful adoption

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Section 5: Veterinary and Euthanasia Policies

SOXrescue Euthanasia Policy
SOXrescue provides a lifetime commitment to all animals that come into our care by arranging for a foster home until they are adopted into their permanent home. While we do not euthanize any animal for time or space, unfortunately, there are some instances where euthanasia is the best or only humane option for an animal in our care. Each animal is evaluated as an individual and assessed under the circumstances as a whole. Euthanasia is only considered after an appropriate investigation of other viable and reasonable options. The following outlines the circumstances in which we consider euthanasia for an animal in our care, how that decision is made and how it will be carried out.

Circumstances that may require euthanasia
SOXrescue only considers euthanasia as an option for animals that are suffering mentally, emotionally or physically and have a poor prognosis; are experiencing unremitting pain or mental suffering that cannot be reasonably alleviated; or pose danger to other animals, themselves or people. Euthanasia is not an option we take lightly and it will be done only when if we have determined that is the only humane option for the animal.

Medical Issues
After consulting with a veterinarian and following her recommendations, we will consider euthanasia for an animal who has a poor prognosis, will have a long and painful rehabilitation process with little chance of a meaningful recovery, has an incurable debilitating illness or is not responding to the available treatment.

Behavioral Issues
If an animal has a history of unprovoked biting and/or is exhibiting aggressive behaviors that pose unacceptable risk to other animals or people, we will consult with an ADPT certified trainer. If the behavior expert determines that the animal is unable to be rehabilitated and will continue to pose a threat to others, we will consult another behavior expert for a second opinion. If the second behavior expert agrees that the animal poses a danger to others and unable to be rehabilitated, we will euthanize the animal. In our opinion, if an animal is so aggressive that two behavior experts determine that it poses a danger to other animals and/or people, life in a sanctuary is simply not a humane option. We will not transfer an animal to another rescue group or shelter to avoid the difficult decision of having to euthanize for a behavioral issue.

How we make the decision to euthanize
For standard medical cases, we will defer to the judgment of our veterinarians in making euthanasia recommendations. For those rare, controversial medical cases where the animal’s quality of life may be unclear, the board of directors and executive director will convene to evaluate the data, consult other resources if necessary and make a determination by a simple majority vote. The foster provider for the animal in question will also be allowed to participate in the discussion and request a vote.

How the animal is euthanized
The Operations Director, district manager or another representative from SOXrescue will be responsible for taking the animal to one of the organization’s partner veterinarians for euthanasia. Whenever possible and appropriate, the director/manager or other representative from SOXrescue will remain with the animal during the entire process.

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Section 6: Appendix

It is important to have a policy in place, approved by the board of directors, regarding veterinary care. This policy should include instructions to the executive director on various aspects of veterinary care so that the director does not have to ask the board for permission every time the organization seeks medical attention for an animal in need. The policy should cover issues such as how much the organization can spend on an animal without board approval, what conditions will be treated under what circumstances and what health situations require board approval prior to treatment. It is critical to have a protocol in place so that a rescue group does not overextend its resources and jeopardize the entire organization by addressing more medical issues than it can handle.

There are times when the only humane option for an animal is euthanasia. The issue of euthanasia in rescue groups generally arises when an animal is suffering (physically or mentally) and the organization does not have the resources or ability to stop or ease the suffering.

The decision to euthanize is never easy, but you can find guidance within the Five Freedoms. While euthanasia philosophy may differ between individual organizations, policy should always ensure that an animal receives all Five Freedoms through the end of life. Once an animal’s quality of life has deteriorated to the point where freedom from discomfort and pain (physical and mental) is no longer possible, euthanasia becomes the humane option.
Drafting a clear euthanasia policy and having it approved by the board of directors will allow you to create a policy that adheres to the values of the organization. It will also help SOXrescue maintain consistency and avoid problems down the road. You can find a sample euthanasia policy in the Appendix .

All euthanasia must be conducted humanely by a veterinarian or certified euthanasia technician who administers an injection of sodium pentobarbital (a tranquilizer is not required, but may be appropriate), and the animal must be made comfortable throughout the procedure.