A Time For Change: Rethinking Animal Sheltering in a Post-Covid World

Cincinnati animal care Rethinking Animal Sheltering Post-Covid

A Time For Change: Rethinking Animal Sheltering Post-Covid

By Meaghan Colville, Shelter Director, Cincinnati Animal CARE
(Best Friends Executive Leadership Certification Graduate, Cohort 2)


Animal Services just like many industries was impacted by the global pandemic. We saw many businesses close for good, adapt their services and products to stay relevant to consumers, and we saw new businesses flourish.

While intake at animal shelters has not generally increased across the board, most communities have experienced a decrease in adoptions and rescues transporting or transferring dogs and cats from municipal shelters.  In some communities intake is on the uptick and animal shelters are grappling with overcrowding as a result of decreased live outcomes and perhaps an increase with intake. 

During Covid, we saw unprecedented engagement with animal shelters with fostering and adopting reaching new heights. Much of this success was due to the awareness created by and best practices taught by animal welfare thought and action leaders like Best Friends Animal Society and Austin Pets Alive!. Thanks to their guidance, our industry has reset standards for humane care and live outcomes. 

Cincinnati animal care Rethinking Animal Sheltering Post-Covid

At Cincinnati AnimalCARE (and previously as Clermont Animal CARE), we are students of proven practices and we have eagerly implemented everything we learned about open adoptions, intake diversion, trusting our community, and the power of playgroups. Our belief in and steadfast commitment to these strategies has led to more live outcomes and even dog flow at such a high level that we regularly had kennels open to help at-risk dogs from other shelters.

Fast forward to 2024 and things are drastically different. Long gone are the days of empty kennels and in turn our ability to help dogs from other shelters. 

Many shelters are feeling the impact of increased intake and decreased adoptions. In a post-covid world, this has led to critical on-site population levels, stretching shelters well beyond what they can readily handle. 

cincinnati animal care hamilton county shelter

Finite Resources

At the end of the day, policies, strategies and good intentions can only get you so far. Every community and every animal shelter is bound by the resources available to them and their scrappiness to find more. “Over capacity” looks different in every shelter. In Cincinnati, we have 100 kennels that would fit the definition of humane and appropriate housing by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASVM) because they are 2-sided, allowing for dogs to eat and sleep away from where they eliminate. Every dog housing we have option beyond that has been retrofitted and added to our facilities to absorb the sheer number of dogs arriving and house the growing on-site population. 

Capacity isn’t just about available space though. 

Resources are also in the form of time, people, skill, supplies, and outcome options like adopters and rescues. These resources address barriers to adoption and help animals find live outcome. Resources must directly connect to the shelter’s needs. When resources aren’t meeting the need, one of two things happen: animals live in poor quality conditions or animals die. 

As we’ve seen our population steadily grow, we’ve become masters of “bend don’t break”. We have contorted our facilities to fit just one more. We’ve pulled every lever we can think of to care for yet another dog. ‘Bend don’t break’ has been our internal mantra for years but we’ve reached our max. The dam is breaking.

cincinnati animal care dane avenue overcrowding


With resources that are struggling to keep up with demand, we have seen our dog population grow exponentially. Since assuming operations of the Hamilton County animal shelter, our in-care dog population has grown 330% and our on-site dog population has increased by 150%. Despite our work to increase housing capacity and community support, our on-site population has continued to grow. We are currently 200% beyond those 100 ASVM approved humane housing kennels. 

Beyond space, our team needs to be able to provide what dogs need. When trying to meet the daily requirements of cleaning, feeding, enrichment, and exercise, every added dog stretches our team more and more thin. It’s like kids in a classroom; smaller class sizes mean more individual time and vice versa. 

As a team, we’ve begun to dig deep into what is causing longer lengths of stay that are kinking our flow of dogs through the system. Aside from increased intake and decreased outcomes, we have identified a category of dogs that pose a challenge to our ability to decrease our length of stay and minimize on-site population.  

black hole dogs at animal shelters hamilton county cincinnati

“Black Hole” Dogs

“Black Hole ” dogs are what we call the dogs in our shelter who present adoption challenges based on their in-shelter or in-home behavior, however, they do not warrant compassionate end-of-life euthanasia based on that behavior. These dogs often have minor and workable behavior issues, for example, on-leash reactivity that makes them hard to walk but don’t actually pose a safety risk.

Due to these behaviors they tend to linger and languish in their kennels without adopters or rescues readily pulling them. Without specific and intentional strategies to address the behaviors or placement in a foster home, the dogs take up precious kennel space and resources, adding to an increasing on-site population.

Worst of all, under continued duress their behavior continues to deteriorate making them even less appealing to potential adopters. 

behavioral euthanasia decisions county animal shelter

Impossible Decisions

When we have done all we can to address a dog’s needs in the shelter and we do not see improvement and the dog is deteriorating further, what do we do? When is the time to decide to humanely end the dog’s life?

There is no right answer, which makes the decision making process one that is incredibly taxing and difficult. In the past, we have given dogs endless time to find that “unicorn” adopter but my shelter is at a point where continuing to wait is sometimes causing more harm than good.

Long lengths of stays:

  • negatively impact the mental health of the dogs who are experiencing it
  • negatively impact the dogs who are living next to these often deteriorating dogs
  • and negatively impact staff and volunteer ability to provide resources to other dogs when a small group of long-stay dogs are getting the majority of resources by way of the best kennels, staff time, and priority for outcome.

Long lengths of stay hurt everybody. 

post-covid animal sheltering dog in kennel

Final Thoughts on Post-Covid Animal Sheltering

It’s been a rough few months for the Cincinnati Animal CARE community. For the first time in our 4 years running the Hamilton County animal shelter, our dog live release rate dropped below 90% to 89%. We were dealing with distemper and made the call on multiple behavioral euthanasias but it hurt nonetheless. These end-of-life decisions for the lack of resources can be exceptionally painful to accept when they are illnesses and behaviors we know we can work with if we just had the kennels, time, and live outcome option standing ready. 

We have an incredibly strong team at Cincinnati Animal CARE. A team that is committed, resolute, scrappy, and works tirelessly to give everything to the animals in our care. Our lifesaving goals and philosophies have not changed and will not change, but how we apply those philosophies needs to be constantly evaluated against the realities of the moment. 

Right now, we have too many dogs and not enough resources to care for and save them. This isn’t a good situation for the dogs and I can’t ignore how it is impacting our people. We are in the midst of a reset and although incredibly difficult, I have to believe that the adversity we are currently facing is necessary to move us forward; to rethink our current practices and policies and to push us to set new standards in humane, compassionate, and safe animal services. 

Putting animal lovers in the impossible situations that we are facing is unacceptable and it is time for the decision-makers across the country who fund these organizations at the city and county level to recognize the importance of pets in people’s lives. We are fortunate in Hamilton County to have a supportive group of county leaders but the stakes are so high every day. I can’t think of another profession in which employees asked to end the lives of the very beings they are there to save. I’m proud of the work Cincinnati Animal CARE has done with our county and community and our focus on advancing the level of professionalism and regard in which our profession is held. We will continue to find solutions safeguarding the health and well-being of the animals and people in our care, but we will also be holding leadership accountable for what is next for our field.


Cincinnati Animal CARE leadership is currently working on new strategies and initiatives to address these challenges head-on. Our biggest opportunity is to strengthen our foster program which should help with space and behavior concerns even more. I will follow up next month with our progress and an honest evaluation of what is working and what is not.

Interested in learning more insider news on the animal sheltering profession? Read Meaghan’s last blog post on overcoming Canine Distemper Virus as an organization here.

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