New Leash on Shelter Life



Identifying FAS

 Animal behavior depends on three factors: genetic predisposition, learning from past experiences, and the environment that it is in at the time. Understanding fear, anxiety, and stress is not only important when managing animals within the shelter setting, but also when assisting with the adoption of these animals into their forever homes. Signs of FAS can vary from animal to animal, and directly correlate with the intensity of these unsettling emotions. Scared, fearful, and anxious pets typically display subtle cues through their body language and behavior.

 FAS behaviors or body language:

  •       Appetite (e.g., a decreased appetite or pica (eating of non-food items))
  •       Grooming (usually increased)
  •       Elimination (e.g., urination or defecation, expression of anal glands)
  •       Social interactions (e.g., vocalization, increased or decreased contact,                    hypervigilance)
  •       Physical activity (e.g., hiding/crouching or efforts to escape/avoid)
  •       Facial expression (e.g., brows furrowed, dilated pupils, ears to side, lip licking)

Why is recognizing FAS in a shelter setting important?

 Each year, approximately 6.5 million dogs and cats will enter the U.S. shelter system nationwide. Nearly every animal that enters the shelter experiences some degree of stress due to the sudden change and unfamiliarity in its new environment. Fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) significantly impacts not only dogs in shelters, but also shelter staff, the environment, potential adopters, and other animals within the shelter. Length of confinement plays an important role in FAS, which can negatively influence an animal’s physical and emotional health, while also decreasing its chances of adoption. Health can also impact behavior, but behavior can affect health. Therefore, improving or resolving underlying stress and anxiety can be essential to the health and welfare of the pet. With the goal of many shelters revolving around animal adoption programs and community education, it is important for shelter staff and volunteers to become educated on the emotional needs of animals, and to improve their overall health and wellbeing.

 Reducing FAS

FAS responses vary between individuals and may be affected by breed, early life experience, sex, age, health, and the pet’s behavioral profile. The longer the FAS-related conditions are unrecognized and untreated, the more complex they become and potentially the more difficult they are to treat. Every animal is unique and treatment plans should be based on each dogs’ needs. Below are a few ideas that could be implemented or modified to create a shelter environment that encourages relaxation in our canine companions:

  •          Allow animals time outside of their cage or small enclosure to run and                     stretch their legs
  •         Provide enrichment through puzzle toys (Kong® toy filled with peanut butter           work well) or slow feeders
  •         Provide enrichment through puzzle toys (Kong® toy filled with peanut butter           work well) or slow feeders
  •         Identify and manage painful animals quickly
  •         Keep records of animals exhibiting FAS
  •         NEVER use physical force with fearful animals
  •         Provide animals with positive human interactions throughout the day
  •         Make sure each animal has enough room to eliminate in their kennel that is            away from their resting and/or food and water area
  •         Place coverings or towels on cage doors of animals that are reactive to                  humans or other animals passing by
  •         Provide treats during physical exams or any handling of a fearful animal, to            encourage a positive response
  •         Music therapy (quiet, calming background music, such as classical music)
  •         Calming pheromones, such as Feliway® and Adaptil®

Emily Fuller, Jasmine Alam, and Hannah Urig, MPH, DVM  

Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine | Class of 2022