2003 by Lucinda Schlaffer AIA and Paul Bonacci AIA, ARQ Architects

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Premise: Designing for pets in a no-kill shelter requires greater sensitivity to the needs of the animals as they may stay awhile before finding a home.

In general, what was the standard for many years, "cages" stacked in a row for cats and long thin standard sized runs for dogs, are no longer acceptable for most facilities if a dog or cat stays more than a week or two. Envision yourself forced out of your home due to a weather emergency and staying with lots of people, sleeping on a cot in a school gym floor. Fine for a night or two, maybe a week, but after that you want to go home, or at least to a hotel with your own room and bed.

It is very much the same for the cats and dogs you are taking care of in your shelter.

What should you do? Here are ten design goals for happy dogs and cats ready to go to new homes.

For the Animals:

1. More space...

For Cats: 20-30 square feet per cat, with higher ceilings for more places to climb.
For Dogs: 60-120 square feet, "room" shaped to avoid "run" proportions where a dog cannot turn around without touching his or her nose or tail on the walls.

2. Varied space...

From Chihuahua to Great Dane, dogs come in many sizes. Evaluate how many large dogs versus small dogs you will be caring for and design a mix of space to serve your anticipated dog group.

3. More air...

Minimum 10-12 air changes per hour, 12-15 air changes better for odor control.

4. Fresh air...

Circulate 100% outside air to animal spaces to minimize air borne contagion from spreading. Work with a mechanical engineer to return air from "people" space for energy conservation and strive to keep total volume of "animal" air down by limiting high ceilings for dogs.

5. Place to play and socialize...

Create "interior" courtyards for inclement weather play space. Create outdoor gardens and patios for group play and socialization on nice days. Provide shade for hot climates.

6. Flexible spaces...

Many dogs and cats may come to you with behavior problems. It is helpful to have varied shapes and sizes of animal spaces to accommodate an asocial cat, or a small colony of cats, similarly dogs benefit from a change in environment to work on aggressive tendencies or excessive fear. Moving the animals around in your shelter helps to prevent them from becoming attached to one space and therefore have a more difficult time transitioning to a new home when adopted.

7. Natural light..

Animals, like people, like a room with a view. It is important for people and animals to "know" day and night for their sense of well-being. Natural light is also beneficial to sanitize surfaces with ultraviolet radiation. It is stimulating to see and watch events outside and keeps the animals from being bored or lonely.

8. Toys/treats/entertainment..

Provide staff and volunteers with options for providing treats via a "mail-slot" or "chute" to give a treat for learning to sit, etc. Providing toys that are fixed on bungee type cords or on occasion also keeps the animals interested and having fun.

9. Comfortable, safe, clean...

Rooms without standing water, sharp corners or covered with heavily toxic materials are critical to animal care in a longer stay shelter. Providing individual drains off to one side give the animal as much open floor space to be in that is dry and clean. Providing cozies for cats, futons for dogs increase staff work with cleaning, but greatly aid in the animal's comfort. Be sure to include adequate laundry space to easily launder covers. Providing furnishings (ideally donated items) in the rooms, give staff an easy way to see if the animal is a chewer, or acts out in other ways, before he or she does so at a new home. The basics, good drainage, smooth non-porous finishes, coved base detailing are essential and cannot be compromised. A zone from the floor to four foot high should be as seamless as possible to allow thorough cleaning for both dogs and cats.

10. Quiet, stress-free space...

Acoustic control is very important to reduce dog and cat stress. Dog barking, even "happy" barking can annoy other dogs and cats. Therefore, closing in dog spaces with glass windows and doors rather than mesh or bars is needed to isolate barking. Laminated glass has higher acoustic value than double-paned glass. Cats can be in colonies that may have mesh or other enclosures without glass, but it still is important for ventilation to be contained in these areas too. It is less important to isolate cats from one another acoustically. The adoping public is much more likely to stay and see all of the dogs and make that successful adoption a reality if barking is not the overwhelming sensation when visiting dogs. Dogs can be encouraged not to bark by arranging their spaces such that dogs to not look directly across a hall into another dog's space. Break up the face to face experience by staggering the rooms, or providing a visual screen. Tip- provide a small vent or hole somewhere for the dogs to "sniff" visitors and recognize them before they enter the dog's room.

For the Staff and Volunteers:

What about the people who work in your shelter? Keep their needs in mind too. Veterinarians, volunteers (dog walkers/ cat socializers), and staff that need to feed, bathe and clean-up after the animals will forever be indebted if their work is made easier with a few thoughtful design touches.

  1. Provide satellite "mini-kitchens" so water is always close at hand, as well as space for a mop, mop bucket, etc. Consider "clinic" sinks for disposing easily of waste.
    (Common in hospital settings Check with local plumbing codes.)
  2. Provide wide halls to move about with cleaning carts. (Added benefit to wide halls is an accessible facility, allowing even more people to participate in the animal care.)
  3. Provide easy convenient workstations for inputting into computer databases, keeping track of behavior characteristics, special diets, exercise etc.
  4. Provide lockers for volunteers and a place to relax, sit and have a cup of coffee or chat with others about favorite dogs and cats.
  5. It helps to have some semi-private seating groups for staff interviews and to discuss particular animals needs with adopters.

For the Public:

Prospective adopters need a lot of attention as well. Make their first impression a warm and pleasant one. Show off your successful placements.

  1. A nice, lobby space - provide a glimpse of some cats and dogs, to showcase your neediest animals. Space for a volunteer greeter is a nice touch.
  2. Places to wait that are comfortable. Not everyone may want to see each and every animal, so to have a spot for the tired mom or dad to wait while the rest keep searching means more of a chance to make a good match.
  3. Computers / educational activities... place to tap into regional / national sheltering networks.
  4. It is really a plus to provide some informal meeting space for group seminars, staff meetings, and impromptu celebrations.

If you have the luxury of outdoor space, outdoor park and play areas can be a setting for fun community events eg. invite local agility clubs to have events at your location or other related activities. Keep in mind not to create noise for your neighbors.

The ideas presented in this article are primarily focused on fostering adoptions. If your shelter is primarily a sanctuary then many of the suggestions may not be essential. Also, we recommend consulting other established sanctuaries for more ideas on good design.

Other complementary functions such as spay and neuter services, medical treatment space may be important for your project. Consult with your architect regarding incorporating related activities into your project. Keeping your healthy adoptable animals in a physically separate zone from medically needy animals will offer the best protection for your dogs and cats.

Do try to build with quality materials. Good design and quality construction is an investment. Both you and the dogs and cats benefit for many years if a good foundation is established from the start.

Paul Bonacci and Lucinda Schlaffer

Partners Paul Bonacci and Lucinda Schlaffer founded ARQ Architects in 1985. The firm has specialized in designing innovative space for animals since its inception, with an emphasis on enriching life rather than simply sustaining life for companion animals. ARQ is most noted for its pioneering design of Maddie's Pet adoption Center at The San Francisco SPCA. On the firm's drawing boards are new prototype facilities to address the needs of rural shelters, small scale adoption centers and a new model for veterinary care design.

Paul Bonacci is a 1979 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and Lucinda Schlaffer received her degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1979. Both partners are active ADPSR members (Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility) and are members of ecological/technology professional interest groups within the American Institute of Architects.