Module 4: The Case of the Barking Dog

Emotional Wellness = Behavioral Wellness

When addressing behavioral health in the shelter, prevention is crucial. A behavioral wellness program starts with proactive strategies to decrease stress and promote a healthy emotional environment from the moment animals arrive at the shelter until the moment their stay ends. A thorough behavioral history and examination are essential and will provide an important baseline for action and follow-up. In addition, ongoing examination and observation of behavior during all interactions is crucial in order to ascertain as much information as possible about an animal’s emotional state, welfare, and personality. Careful attention must be paid to housing and enrichment, and concurrent population management strategies must be employed to minimize length of stay and maximize best outcomes for animals.


Test Your Knowledge


Behavioral wellness: It starts with a good history…

Getting a good history is all about asking the right questions. Of course, you would ask about the pet’s medical health history, preventive health care, and any problems they may have had, as well as information about their behavior. More specifically in terms of behavioral history, your questions should help you discover information about the pet’s:

  • Personality and preferences: likes, dislikes, favorite things, fears
  • Routine: where does he/she stay; what does he/she do on a typical day
  • Tolerance of humans and handling: men, women, small children, being petted, being picked up, etc.
  • Tolerance of other animals: cats, other dogs he/she knows, unfamiliar dogs?
  • Behavioral responses to common situations: a stranger visiting, a trip to the vet, a car ride, etc.
  • House training / litter box habits
  • Degree of training
  • Reason(s) for surrender

Shelters typically use a standardized interview form to help staff consistently gather important history about physical and behavioral health. Ideally, staff should go over the form in person with the person admitting the animal. Here is an example of a dog intake history form from the Collaborative for Shelter Dogs at Tufts University. And, here is an example of a cat intake history form from the San Francisco SPCA.

The Truth About Obtaining a History

Obviously, in the shelter setting, it may not always be possible to obtain an accurate history. Ideally, staff should always obtain a history at the time of admission. Even so, surrendering owners may or may not provide thorough or accurate information fearing that if they are honest about a pet’s problems, the pet may be euthanized. Nonetheless, when available, a history can be extremely valuable and may save time, money, and stress on the animal and staff. Intake procedures should be in place to capture basic patient information, including both physical and behavioral data as well as the reasons for relinquishment. The importance of obtaining historical information cannot be overemphasized. In many cases, historical information may be used to expedite the disposition of the pet.

Who Should You Ask for a History?

Any available information can be extremely helpful to guide care when animals enter the shelter. For this reason, a history should be obtained from: owners surrendering a pet, good Samaritans who find and bring a pet to the shelter, and animal control officers who pick up animals in the field. Although it is not always easy to get an honest answer from people who are surrendering a pet, it is crucial to get as much information as possible. In some instances, fear that the pet might be euthanized will inhibit complete and truthful answers. For example, an owner may minimize a serious problem fearing it will lead to euthanasia of their pet. Studies of owner relinquishment indicate however that when people do confide information about a pet’s problems, it is often truthful. It turns out that failing to divulge or omitting important information is more likely than reporting a problem that does not exist. As such, it is important to ask for behavioral history in a non-judgmental way in order to get as much information about a pet as possible. Asking open ended questions such as, “what does your pet do when he meets a stranger?” will likely provide more complete and reliable information that simple “yes or no” questions like, “is your pet aggressive when he meets a stranger?”.

Good Samaritans may or may not have much information or experience with a stray animal that they have found. That said, in many instances they may have more knowledge of the animal than you might think. For example, they may have held the pet for several days or weeks to look for the owner before bringing the animal to the shelter, or they may have seen the animal around the neighborhood for some time, or otherwise be familiar with them. As such, they may be able to tell you quite a bit about the animal’s personality and behavior. Likewise, gathering historical information from animal control officers bringing in animals from the field can also be very useful. Animal control officers can provide initial information regarding how the animal behaved during capture and transport. For example, an animal’s behavioral responses at the time of impoundment might be very different than what the officer saw in the field. Stress and fear can cause a previously friendly animal to become fractious by the time he/she is handled during intake at the shelter.


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Integrating Veterinary Medicine with Shelter Systems Copyright © 2020 by University of Florida is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.