PHOENIX — Howard the tabby cat has a new favorite hiding spot: a small plastic step stool in his cage at Jackson County Animal Care and Control.
"It helps (him) settle," said Randi Coleman, who's been a shelter technician for five years. "It gives him a place where he can feel safe and secure."
Spay/Neuter Your Pet is a referral program to put pet owners in touch with low-cost spay/neuter services around Jackson County. Visit www.spayneuter.org or call 541-858-3325.
Reducing stress among animals is one of many changes recommended for the shelter by the Oregon Humane Society in an 85-page report released earlier this month.
The report found that while Jackson County's facilities were clean and staff well-intentioned, the shelter's policies and practices contributed to its high rate of euthanasia — 81 percent among cats and 35 percent among dogs in 2011.
Policies put in place to ensure the well-being of pets and owners actually restricted adoption and hindered the reuniting of lost pets with their owners, the report found.
The shelter's lack of routine medical care, frequent shifting of cats to new quarters, and lack of toys and soft beds can stress the animals physically and mentally, the report said.
"(Animal Control) can substantially enhance service to the community while increasing the number and rate of animals leaving the shelter alive," the report said. "The foundation for all of this is a commitment to continual improvement and creating a culture of compassion throughout all of your shelter operations."
County officials said they are taking the report's findings to heart, hoping to increase adoption rates and decrease the number of animals euthanized by revamping policies and adding more staff.
"It's just an absolutely thorough, professional report," said Jackson Baures, program manager for the Environmental Health Division and interim director at the animal shelter. "We owe a lot to the Oregon Humane Society."
Baures said many of the changes suggested in the report can be done with little added cost, though they won't happen overnight, and it's not yet known when they will be implemented fully.
"We're really looking to change the culture as a whole," Baures said at a recent Jackson County Board of Commissioners meeting. "There's a lot of work to do still."
"Everything in (this report) is doable for us," County Administrator Danny Jordan said.
County officials asked OHS for an analysis of shelter practices after public outcry erupted over Max, a 4-year-old house cat belonging to Medford resident Priscilla Farrel, was mistakenly euthanized in December 2011. The cat had a microchip, but staff deemed him unmanageable and, thinking he was feral, put him down without checking for one.
Another Medford resident, Pam Weber, said her cat, trapped by a neighbor, also was deemed unmanageable by shelter staff and euthanized before she could reclaim it.
OHS Executive Director Sharon Harmon said OHS officials evaluated the shelter in May.
"We looked at everything," Harmon said, adding the report is a "blueprint for success," not a mandatory rule book.
She added OHS has done similar consultations around the state. Many of the animal shelters were built in the 1970s, and facilities and policies have not changed much since then.
"(This new) protocol's based on current knowledge," Harmon said.
In 2011, the Jackson County animal shelter took in 2,801 cats and 2,077 dogs. Of those, 400 cats and 591 dogs were adopted; 51 cats and 674 dogs were returned to their owners.
Of the remaining animals, some were transferred to other facilities. The rest — 2,278 cats and 725 dogs — were euthanized.
"We believe that number can drop significantly," Harmon said. "But everyone's going to have to give."
The report recommended easing adoption policies, building better relationships with other adoption organizations, and better educating the public on the importance of spaying and neutering as ways to reduce the numbers of animals euthanized.
Shelter officials said they're modifying the adoption policy to be less restrictive, hoping to reduce an animal's length of stay and encourage more adoptions.
The former adoption policy required fenced yards for dogs, landlord checks for all renters, and that puppies and kittens be adopted by adults or families with older children. It also required owners of found cats to prove their pets wouldn't be a nuisance in the future before they could reclaim them, a policy OHS said was "unnecessary and may add to the shelter's population."
"The adoption application is onerous and more pass/fail than conversation starting, and adoption fees may be a barrier to some pet owners," the report found.
OHS officials recommended a new method of adoption called open selection, allowing all animals deemed safe to be viewed and adopted. Past policies did not allow the public to view strays until the pets passed a mandatory 72-hour hold, regardless of demeanor.
"This adds delays, and fails to track and honor a finder or other interested party that could take the pet," the report said.
Baures said the shelter is implementing the new open-selection policy, using a template application from OHS.
"We want to try this out and see what happens," Baures said.
The OHS report showed the shelter's adoption program has several strengths, including adequate space for animals and potential owners to interact. Stray animals are advertised appropriately on the shelter's website and social networking sites such as Facebook and Petfinder, the report said, and staff members provide adoptive families with appropriate pet care information.
The report said reducing animal intake will help drop euthanasia rates.
"You will still admit some feral cats, the hope is that with fewer to deal with, the better the care individual cats will receive, and ultimately a live outcome for some of the cats will be possible," the report said.
Baures said the shelter will still accept trapped feral cats, but they will be limited to one cat per person per day.
Baures said he has heard concerns that this new policy could mean an increase in incidents of animal cruelty, as those trapping cats might take matters into their own hands.
"There are always concerns about that," Baures said, adding that excess feral cats will be referred to other advocacy groups.
The shelter already has seen a drop in the euthanasia rate among cats to 59 percent for the year, Baures said. Of the 1,149 cats brought in, 675 have been euthanized.
Historically, the shelter had been somewhat isolated, technician Coleman said. Networking with other community organizations was limited, as was the system that allowed animals to be transported from one facility to another.
"Before, we kind of took on everything ourselves," Coleman said.
Communication with other organizations, such as Spay/Neuter Your Pets and the Southern Oregon Humane Society, already has opened up significantly, she added. The shelter is hoping to increase the number of animals it transfers to other agencies.
SOHS Executive Director Kenn Altine said 86 animals have been transferred from animal control to the SOHS facility since January. Of SOHS's adoptions for 2012 so far, 9 percent have been pets from the county animal shelter.
"That's a very great start," Altine said.
The report said the day-to-day care of animals at the facility needs more oversight and that the county shelter should contract with a veterinarian to establish procedures for care of pets.
"Staff are in need of additional training to diagnose disease, dispense drugs and manage the health of the population as a whole," the report said. "This is an area of significant concern and a priority issue."
Baures said he is talking with a local veterinarian to help with staff medical training. Other changes, such as a separate handling smock for each room of cats and more toys for the animals' recreation, have been instituted to benefit animal health.
The OHS report said the shelter handles euthanasia in "the most humane way possible." But it also outlined several concerns, including an inadequate number of staff and dated equipment. An additional shelter technician has been hired since the report was issued, Baures said.
The report recommended training staff in utilizing tools such as nets to restrain animals safely, providing mental health resources for staff, and designating quiet rooms for cats and dogs about to undergo euthanasia.
Shelter officials have invested in nets, designated separate areas for euthanasia procedures, and are working on getting mental health resources for staff. They have also certified a second euthanasia technician and are in the process of certifying a third.
Shelter officials said animals will be scanned multiple times for a microchip using a universal scanner before euthanasia is authorized, and mandatory minimum holds of 24 hours will be implemented, regardless of the cat's demeanor.
"We're giving them space to settle, to calm down," Coleman said.
Kenn Altine said each Southern Oregon animal care organization has a slightly different mission but that a common thread runs through all of them: spaying and neutering pets is key.
"We insist that all animals be spayed or neutered before the adoption process is complete," Altine said, adding it's better for their health and behavior and makes a dent in the overpopulation of feral cats. "There is no reason that an animal should not be spayed or neutered."
The OHS report also emphasized the importance of creating a fund to sterilize cats belonging to those on public assistance.
"Research indicates this is the human population segment that is most likely to contribute to pet overpopulation," the report said.
Animal control hasn't looked into creating such a fund yet, but it will, Baures said.
He added visible identification tags on pets are also important. He also hopes the shelter will be a "last resort" for pet owners wanting to adopt their pets out.
"That'll help us in terms of reducing the staff workload to provide better care to the animals in the facility," he said.
Overall, officials said, they hope the changes at the shelter will build a stronger trust with the community.
"If we're more connected, we're going to reduce euthanasia rates," Coleman said.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.