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Rescue Group Best Practices: standards for primary enclosures

The physical space that will serve as an animal’s primary enclosure, the place where he will eat, sleep and spend the majority of his time, must be safe, sanitary, and of sufficient size to provide a humane quality of life. IMPORTANT: Cages, crates, and carriers that are intended for travel or short-term, temporary confinement are unacceptable as primary enclosures; it is also unacceptable to keep animals on wire or slatted flooring.

Ensuring that an animal has adequate space can be a challenge, particularly when several animals are kept in the same room or when an animal must be confined in a kennel or cage. Regardless of the type of housing used, every animal must be able to:

  • Stand up, sit down and lie down comfortably
  • Stretch fully from tip of front toes to back toes
  • Carry her tail in normal carriage (for cats and certain breeds of dogs that means having tail fully extended)
  • Engage in normal sleeping, eating/drinking and urinating/defecating behaviors (most animals prefer not to eliminate near where they eat and sleep, so allowing sufficient space to distinguish a “potty area” is important)
  • Assume normal posture when sleeping, eating/drinking, and urinating/ defecating
  • See out of the enclosure, but also avoid being seen

With respect to dogs, there are no hard and fast rules about kennel dimensions because there is so much variation in size among breeds—what is essentially a palatial kennel for a Chihuahua can be cruelly small for a St. Bernard or Great Dane. Therefore, when determining the appropriate enclosure for dogs in your care, use the rules of thumb above as your guide. Does each dog have enough room to stand up, sit down, turn around and lie down comfortably? Can the animal establish a potty area sufficiently far away from the eating and sleeping areas (even dogs who are housetrained and walked regularly may have an accident or two, particularly while adjusting to a new routine)? If not, the primary enclosure is not large enough.

For cats kept in cages, it is vital to ensure that their enclosure allows them to hold their tails in normal posture (straight up) and lets them stretch from the tips of their front toes all the way to their back toes. While the ASV GSC states that there must be at least two feet of triangulated distance between cats’ food/water, bedding and litter box areas†, this is a bare minimum, and they should have as much space as possible. When cats are housed in groups, each requires a minimum of 18 square feet of floor space, and regardless of the size of the room, ASV GSC recommends a maximum of 10–12 cats per room.

In addition to size, there are other factors to be considered in determining whether an animal’s environment is humane. Inside the enclosure, the animal must have a comfortable place to sleep—typically that means soft towels or bedding materials on a bed or other platform raised off the floor. They should also have toys, particularly those that provide mental as well as physical stimulation. Cats need places to hide, scratching posts, and options for sleeping and perching (they prefer to be off the floor, so vertical space is a must). The longer the animal will stay in your care, the more mentally and physically stimulating her primary housing area must be.

The environment in which the primary enclosure is located is equally important. For instance, the animal must have an appropriate temperature (sled dogs used to living in cold environments will have vastly different temperature needs than newborn kittens or sick animals). The American Veterinary Medical Association (“AVMA”) recommends ambient temperatures between 60–80 degrees, but individual animals may have needs outside that range. Fresh air is important and can help prevent disease. Appropriate lighting is vital—just like people, animals need regular light/dark cycles to support healthy sleep patterns. And while adding music can be soothing and help mask unpleasant sounds like barking and electronic machinery, animals should also have periods of quiet to facilitate rest. Consult your veterinarian for guidance on establishing the appropriate environment for the animals in your care.

Animals’ primary housing areas must also be safe and able to be thoroughly sanitized. Ensure that there are no sharp edges on cages and that there are no gaps or spaces where a pet’s head or paw might get stuck. If animals will be kept in foster homes, encourage care providers to look around the entire area and remove any breakables, items that they do not want potentially soiled or damaged and items that may be hazardous to a pet (e.g., poisonous houseplants, exposed electrical cords, trash, household cleaners). You may want to encourage foster providers to invest in outlet safety plugs and childproof latches for drawers and cabinets.