Skip to content Skip to navigation

Rescue Group Best Practices: physical well-being

Appropriate health care, including routine and preventative care, should be provided to all animals in your organization’s charge. Track and record typical indicators of health like weight, temperature and body condition score, but also pay attention to anything that seems out of the ordinary for the animal, as this may be an indication that something is wrong. Create a list of health issues to look for with your veterinarian, draft a written protocol for foster providers and document any health issues you suspect an animal may have.

To prevent the spread of disease and safeguard the public (including foster homes), immediately isolate any animal showing signs of contagious disease. Have medical contact information readily available for all foster providers in case of an emergency, and provide fosters with clear guidance as to what is considered normal, what symptoms are indicators of illness and what symptoms require immediate veterinary attention.


Ensuring that all animals are appropriately vaccinated is a critical part of running a safe and humane rescue organization. In addition, animals need protection against parasites (e.g., fleas, heartworm) and zoonotic diseases (diseases that can spread between species, such as ringworm). Consult your veterinarian to determine what vaccinations and medications should be given to the animals on a routine basis.


Remember that animals may arrive with diseases that are difficult to remove from the environment (like ringworm or parvo), so limiting them to places that can be completely and easily disinfected is essential. In shelter settings it is recommended that all surfaces, including walls and floors, be made of non-porous materials so disinfectants like bleach can be easily applied (and remember to always clear all organic material before applying bleach—otherwise the bleach can be deactivated). In foster home situations, that can prove more difficult. Bedding and other materials should be routinely washed with bleach and machine dried to kill any viruses. Creative holding options like children’s baby pools and pet exercise pens can be useful, particularly when managing puppies and kittens. While foster settings are definitely more challenging in terms of thorough sanitation, the risks may be outweighed by the benefits of the stress-reduction achieved by keeping the animal in a home setting. Talk with your veterinarian about the best isolation protocols to follow.


Ideally, every animal should be sterilized prior to adoption. Some rescue groups will have an adopter pay an extra deposit that is returned upon proof that the animal has been spayed or neutered. This system does not ensure 100% compliance, and it requires organizations to spend extra time and resources on follow-up. Pediatric spay/neuter is safe, effective and becoming common practice. All animals that are older than eight weeks, weigh at least two pounds and are healthy should be sterilized prior to adoption. However, do not let strict adherence to this rule undermine a potentially successful adoption. If an animal is too unhealthy for surgery, your group may want to hold off on finalizing the adoption until after she has recovered in her new home and been altered. Get a letter from a veterinarian that details the animal’s condition if the animal will always be too unhealthy for spay/neuter. This is particularly important in areas that have different licensing requirements for altered and unaltered pets.

You may also want to consider creating a spay policy regarding pregnant pets. With so many homeless animals across the country, resource constraints can make it difficult to rescue all the animals in danger while also providing for newborns. This can become a difficult ethical situation and having a policy in place beforehand makes it easier to deal with when it does crop up. While some organizations may feel strongly one way or another, other organizations may feel comfortable with a middle ground—for example, not terminating a pregnancy that is more than halfway through the gestation period.


According to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association only 22% of lost dogs and fewer than 2% of lost cats that enter shelters are reunited with their families. Those statistics are drastically different for microchipped pets. More than 52% of microchipped dogs and more than 38% of microchipped cats are returned home. However, further research reveals that only 58% of the animals’ microchips are registered in a database with the owner’s contact information, making nearly half of the chips ineffective in helping pets return home.

Your rescue should ensure that all adopted animals are microchipped and encourage adopters to register and update it with their current contact information and list your organization as the second contact. This way, if the animal becomes lost and the microchip does not have current contact information, your organization will be notified. In addition to microchipping, you should put a collar and an identification tag on all animals, including indoor cats, before they go to their new homes. Animals in foster care and those attending adoption events should also wear collars with identification.

Check out more tips on how to reunite lost pets with their owners.

JAVMA (Vol. 235, No. 2)


Just like many people, some animals have specific dietary needs to accommodate issues such as food allergies or a need for weight management. Have a veterinarian assess each animal’s dietary needs to provide a proper diet. The following are standards for providing nutritious food and water:

  • Animals should have access to fresh, clean water at all times and it should be changed at least daily.
  • Animals should have access to nutritious food at an amount appropriate for the animal’s age, weight and health. Conduct research and talk to your veterinarian to determine the best food for your pets. There are resources that can help you determine how much food to give your pets as well as which foods are appropriate.
  • Throw out uneaten food after a maximum of 24 hours.
  • Store food to protect it from spoiling as well as from insects and rodents.


Veterinarians are critical partners in helping rescue groups carry out their mission, so it is important to build relationships early on. In addition to having a partner for spay/neuter procedures, many of the animals in your organization will need extensive veterinary care before they can be considered adoptable. Some things you will need a veterinarian for are spay/neuter, general care, emergency care, preventative medications such as flea/tick and heartworm medication, standard and rabies vaccinations as well as implanting microchips. Some rescue groups prefer to work with veterinarians who have experience in shelter medicine as they may be more familiar with the types of issues the animals in their care experience.

While many veterinarians choose their profession because they love animals, they are also business owners and have a bottom line to manage. They have real and legitimate financial concerns, especially in a down economy, and rescue groups need to respect that. Because of these concerns, you may find resistance from some veterinarians who are wary of losing money or have been burned by another rescue group in the past. Be mindful when approaching them to partner with your organization and aim to build a mutually beneficial and successful relationship. You should be honest and upfront with what you will need from a veterinarian and continue to have an open dialogue along the way.

You should certainly expect veterinarians that you work with to provide the same level of care to your organization’s pets as they do to their full-paying clients. Perhaps the veterinarian can only offer you discounted prices if your organization is limited to a certain number of visits per month. That arrangement can work as long as you establish partnerships with other veterinarians as well. Go through services and prices and put your agreement in writing, including names of individuals authorized to approve veterinarian appointments and care. This will help prevent misunderstandings before they occur. And make sure you highlight how working with your organization will be beneficial for the veterinarian’s practice by referring adopters. For veterinarians who are just starting out, partnering with a rescue group is a great way to quickly gain experience in a wide array of skills.