Improving Animal Welfare in Shelters

Improving Animal Welfare in Shelters

Photo by Brittany Gawley

As a child growing up on an Ontario farm, Bailey Eagan was curious about the behaviour of her horses and dogs, and sought to make the best possible lives for them. Supervised by Professor David Fraser, the research focus of her Master’s of Science has been on companion animals, specifically cats and dogs, their interaction with humans, and the mutual benefits of co-existence.

Eagan’s research is based in the shelters of the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA). Looking into why people give up their dogs and cats, Eagan said that 40 per cent of dogs and cats are owner-surrendered and come from good, loving homes. The main reasons for surrender are rising medical costs for pets and housing issues preventing owners from keeping their pets. As intake of animals continually declines over time, she thinks there is an opportunity for shelters like the BC SPCA to spend available resources on preventing intake.

She is also examining how noise affects cats in the shelter environment. Cats are highly susceptible to stress and stress-associated infections. To learn what makes them stressed, Eagan observed the animals at several BC SPCA locations and installed sound metres to monitor sound patterns, noting when it was noisiest and how cats behaved. Common noise sources include barking dogs, talking humans and cleaning operations. When it was most noisy, cats were more fearful.

At the decibel levels she witnessed upon playback, humans would don ear protection. Since cats have more sensitive hearing than dogs and humans, it’s not surprising that noise is affecting them. Shelters often get loud during visiting hours and are designed with metal cages and cement for easy cleaning, where sound reverberates.

Cats were less fearful when it was quiet. When shelters were closed to the public and while personnel attended meetings, hiding cats emerged to stretch, lounge, groom and play. “We want to make it less stressful to the cats who are retreating. We can set up an environment where they don’t need to hide as much. The more stressed the cats get, the less adoptable they are, the longer they stay in the shelter.”

When Eagan began her research, Professor Fraser had recommended that she spend time watching the animals: “It was the best advice I got. It is my decision-making technique.”

She is grateful to her Animal Welfare Program collaborators: Professors Fraser, Dan Weary, Marina von Keyserlingk and Assistant Professor Alexandra Protopopova. Also she’s thankful to her BC SPCA collaborators: Emilia Gordon, Karen van Haaften and Sara Dubois, Jodi Dunlop, Kim Monteith, Michelle Hadikin, as well as countless shelter managers, staff and volunteers.

“I’m really lucky that the animal shelter is my research lab. It’s an under-researched area; we know very little about animals in shelters and how their welfare is impacted.” Eagan is preparing to defend her Master’s of Science thesis in late 2020. She is excited about her future, which includes postdoctoral studies with Protopopova.

No matter where the future takes her, Eagan hopes that her research will be helpful to animal shelters everywhere.