2.1. Data Collection
A retrospective cohort study was conducted on data obtained from APA’s ShelterLuv database. APA was selected due to its collection of innovative programs that are reported to result in a higher rate of live outcomes for animals who have been largely considered euthanasia candidates in traditional animal shelters [1
]. As a private companion animal rescue, APA does not offer relinquishment services, but instead focuses on serving animals who are at-risk (for euthanasia) at Austin’s municipal shelter, Austin Animal Center (AAC, Austin, TX, USA), and other shelters and rescues in Texas. In 2016, APA took in over 7000 animals, many of which (39%) came as transfers from AAC due to medical or behavioral challenges. Data collected for the study included intake and outcome information for all cats and dogs that were 84 months or older and in the care of APA between 1 November 2016 and 24 November 2017. All of the animals included in the sample were admitted to AAC through either owner surrender or as strays. They were then transferred to APA from AAC after being flagged as “at risk” (for euthanasia) due to medical or behavior concerns. A total of 124 cats and 122 dogs over the age of 84 months fell within these selection criteria. While the definition of “senior” or “geriatric” for companion animals varies across species, breed, and size, 84 months was used as a generally recognized benchmark for the beginning of most aging-related medical or behavior symptoms, regardless of species or size [25
]. Furthermore, 84 months is the criteria APA uses to determine eligibility for their discounted “senior” adoption fees.
Data collected for each animal in the study sample included date of intake to APA, intake type (e.g., owner surrender, stray, abandoned), estimated age at intake (in months), weight at intake, identified primary breed, reason for surrender to AAC (if applicable), qualitative description of condition upon intake at APA, qualitative description of plan for treatment once in the care of APA, total number of days in the custody of APA, the number of days while in the custody of APA when the animal was in off-site foster care, the number of days while in the custody of APA when the animal was on-site at APA, outcome date (if applicable), and outcome type (e.g., adoption, euthanasia, died in custody, still in care). The length of stay (time in custody, time on-site, and time in foster) for animals in the sample who had been returned to APA following an initial adoption were reported using the animals’ most recent time in APA’s care. The outcomes reported also reflect the animals’ status at the end of the study period on 24 November 2017. While not included within the APA data on the three length of stay variables (in custody, in foster, and on-site), the average time each animal was in the care of AAC prior to being transferred to APA was between 1–5 days.
Categories for reason for surrender to AAC included stray, people issues, animal illness, deceased caretaker, negligence, or abandoned. Stray was used if the animal was brought into AAC by an animal protection officer or by someone other than the animal’s caretaker. People issues encompassed reasons cited by the relinquishing family, such as: allergies, housing restrictions, and moving. Animal illness was used if the family of the senior cat or dog cited they could not afford to care for the animal anymore because the illness had become physically, economically, or emotionally difficult to sustain. Deceased caretaker was used if the animal was relinquished due to the death of one of the animal’s caretakers. Negligence was used if the animal was removed from a home by AAC due to a cruelty or neglect case. Abandoned was used if the animal had a microchip upon intake to AAC as a stray, but was never reclaimed by the individual listed on the microchip. Time in custody included the date the animal was accepted for transfer from AAC to the date the animal’s outcome at APA was recorded. For animals that are still in the care of APA, the final day of the study period, 24th November, was used as the last day for time in custody. Time in foster was the number of days of the animal’s total time in custody that was spent in off-site care with an APA registered foster family or in “pre-adopt” status in the home of a potential adopter. Time on-site was the number of days of the animal’s total time in custody that was spent on-site at APA in one of their kennels.
When possible, the data was coded into nominal or ordinal variables for the purposes of analyses. Identified primary breed was based upon what was indicated either by the relinquishing individual at intake (if applicable) or by the AAC staff member who conducted the animal’s initial evaluation. Breeds were then grouped according to the National Dog Show categories of: herding, hound, non-sporting, sporting, terrier, toy, or working [27
]. The quantitative weight of dogs was coded into ordinal intervals of small (0–19 lbs), medium (20–59 lbs), large (60–99 lbs), and extra-large (100+ lbs). The qualitative descriptions of condition upon intake and plan for treatment were coded into nominal variables for analyses. Condition at intake descriptions, as determined by a veterinarian or veterinary technician, were coded into the following categories: terminal, poor body condition, further medical attention needed, and healthy. While most conditions were assessed at the time of the animals’ initial intake evaluation, some conditions, such as highly concerning behaviors or more complex medical diagnoses that required ongoing diagnostic tests, were amended in the animal’s case file once the final condition was determined. In this way, the coded condition upon intake descriptions reflect the final diagnosis of each animal following this thorough initial evaluation. Terminal condition for a medical reason included animals with confirmed cancer diagnosis, neoplasia, prolapsed rectum, renal failure in cats, heart failure, and/or poor mobility in dogs. Terminal condition for a behavior reason included animals that exhibited any of the three “unsafe” behavior categories: uninterruptible drive to fight, offensive aggression to humans, and unpredictable aggression. These behaviors were thoroughly assessed by the behavior management team who recorded incidents during dog-dog interactions or dog-human interactions. The documentation of these incidents informed further discussion by the Executive Director of APA, Director of Lifesaving Operations, and the Dog Behavior Manager, who would ultimately need to come to consensus on the terminal condition for a euthanasia decision to be confirmed. Poor body condition included animals who were underweight, had poor coat quality, skin issues, stiff joints, dehydration, poor teeth, and/or poor vision. Further medical attention needed included animals not eating, had nasal/ocular discharge, heart murmurs, enlarged masses that were not cancerous, and/or ulcers. Healthy condition included any other animals with no notable medical conditions aside from what could be reasonably expected due to their age. Animals with a healthy condition could have had behavior concerns at the time of transfer from AAC, but these behaviors were considered treatable within APA’s routine behavior program. Plan for treatment descriptions were coded into the following: monitor, exam needed, medication, and surgery. Animals coded as monitor were simply to be observed during their stay at APA, either because they required no additional medical intervention or because their medical condition was expected to be terminal and only veterinarian approval for euthanasia was required. Animals coded as monitor for behavior were to be watched until a later date as they showed no signs of aggression or dangerous behavior at the time of intake, but exhibited behaviors that may require additional intervention. Animals were monitored for behavior reasons to assess the intensity of a behavior concern, such as kennel aggression, swatting or hissing, areas of the body that are sensitive to touch, and resource guarding. Animals placed on medication were those experiencing pain, dehydration, or needed ongoing medication for a diagnosed medical condition. Those placed on medication for a behavior reason were for animals that experienced anxiety or fearfulness in the shelter setting that was prohibiting professionals to care for the animal at its highest capacity. The animals that were medicated for behavior concerns were considered a priority for foster. Animals with a treatment type of surgery required medical action for issues, such as mass removal, orthopedics, tooth extraction, or amputation. Animals who required an additional exam were those who needed to be further evaluated for medical or behavior concerns that could not be determined during their initial intake evaluation. These additional exam procedures included x-rays, blood tests (hematology and biochemical analysis), urinalysis, and/or other appropriate diagnostics provided by a commercial veterinary laboratory (e.g., Antech Diagnostics, Fountain Valley, CA, USA). Animals with behavior concerns requiring additional examination were given training opportunities to better assess the best placement option for the animal. These opportunities included the animal being enrolled in weekly socialization with other animals such as playgroups and/or receiving one-on-one obedience training such as the Canine Good Citizen Program to support the animal in developing qualities of a dependable and well-behaved pet. Following these additional exams, the animals were then placed into one of the other three treatment plan categories of monitor, medication, or surgery depending on their other needs, however this category was maintained for analysis insofar as it represents the group of animals that cannot be immediately determined as either an adoption or euthanasia candidate at the time of intake.