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Q: I really want to volunteer at an animal shelter, but I get so depressed when I visit and see all those animals in cages without homes. I don’t feel that I’m providing any service to them by just petting them and talking to them. What can I do to help those animals so that they have a better quality of life in the shelter?

A: Animal shelters come in all forms and, like everything in life, they can range from bad to outstandingly good based on how they are managed.

Running an animal shelter is not easy. It requires sincere dedication to the animals as well as the ability to navigate the business of running a shelter effectively and efficiently. A well-run animal shelter provides clean, comfortable living quarters for the animals along with daily exercise and stimulation.

Typically, the exercise and mental stimulation is provided by a well-organized and dedicated volunteer force. The exercise should involve time to be with other animals and time out of doors in appropriate runs and play areas. The volunteer force should be closely managed and educated to know how to handle the animals and provide a structured environment for them.

A dedicated quarantine area is mandatory so that animals entering the shelter can be evaluated and to keep sick and contagious animals away from the rest of the population.

A well-run shelter should employ a dedicated behaviorist to assess the temperament of all animals before they enter the general population and before they are adopted.

Unhealthy animals should be attended to immediately and a veterinarian should be on-site to manage the medical care of the animals. There are veterinarians who are specifically trained in shelter medicine. They provide a wealth of knowledge on how to effectively run an animal shelter and are an important asset to a well-run animal shelter.

In some of the most amazing animal shelters, people interested in adopting an animal are enrolled in educational classes to help them determine the type of pet that will best suit their family before they adopt. The families are also required to spend some time with the animal in dedicated visiting rooms under the supervision of adoption specialists. All of this helps to reduce the number of animals that are returned to the shelter and ensure a smoother transition into the home.

A well-run animal shelter supports the local community and is in turn supported by the community with donations and volunteer hours.

If you do not feel that your shelter is providing a good environment for those animals and/or is not educating and supporting the volunteers and public, then I recommend speaking with the director of the animal shelter with your concerns or contacting your city council to try to improve the situation for the best interests of the animals.

Q: I adopted a puppy from an animal shelter and after 3 days she got sick, was diagnosed with Distemper and then died! I am heart broken and want to know how this happened and if I could have done anything to prevent it.

A: As with the first question, the answer lies in how the shelter managed this puppy prior to the adoption.

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Animal shelters should always quarantine newly admitted animals for enough time to determine if they are sick or healthy so that the burden does not fall on the person adopting the animal.

Sick animals, as well as new animals, should be housed separately until they are cleared by a veterinarian before being placed in the general housing area.

Monitoring the animals daily to identify health changes will help stop or slow any outbreaks within the shelter. Practicing stringent cleaning protocols is essential in decreasing disease spread and outbreaks.

The puppy you adopted was infected with the Distemper virus prior to going to the shelter or at the shelter so unfortunately, without the proper cleaning and quarantine protocols in place, you and your puppy suffered.

Although you may be a little nervous about starting over, I recommend finding a different, more well-run shelter and trying again to give a homeless animal a forever home.

Dr. Julianne Miller is a Flagstaff veterinarian. She can be reached at


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