LAND O'LAKES — A recent University of Florida study praises Pasco County's animal shelter for "record-breaking decreases" in euthanized animals, but it has harsh words about conditions there and recommends more attention be paid to animal nutrition, cleanliness and behavioral issues.
"Many animals are experiencing signs of profound emotional suffering and distress, and some long-term residents appear malnourished," the report said.
The 40-page study by the university's College of Veterinary Medicine came at the county's request after shelter officials last year implemented "Save 90" to try to boost adoptions to 90 percent from 55 percent a few years ago.
Although that effort is helping — 80 percent of animals are adopted or placed with rescue groups — the study suggests dozens of changes to make their lives better and improve their behavior, from more pet beds and better food to more walks and outdoor play for dogs.
The report said dogs in particular are prone to aggressive or withdrawn behavior when caged for too long, making them harder to adopt. The researchers also suggested more frequent and thorough cleaning of cages. They visited the shelter in March.
Shelter manager Mike Shumate said staff has put in place 70 percent of the study's recommendations. He is set to outline those changes and the study at a July 29 workshop with Pasco commissioners.
"In general, with the current population and more shelters euthanizing less, we've gone from animal control to animal services. That's the trend in sheltering, and it's difficult," Shumate said.
In Pasco's case, that has meant keeping animals for weeks or even months at a time, raising costs for food, medicine and staff. The shelter uses volunteers but lacks enough employees to clean and disinfect cages, coordinate adoptions and socialize the animals.
Shumate said that given its population — 117 dogs and 118 cats — the shelter is understaffed by five positions. That disparity can grow when vacations and sick days kick in.
The university study, which Shumate received in April, notes the staffing challenge.
"Without the staffing, facility or resources available to meet their individual needs, the health, behavior, adoptability and welfare of many dogs and cats is dramatically declining during their shelter stay," it said.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri, a vocal shelter supporter, agreed that more staff is needed but doubted that commissioners will hire five full-time workers, given an emphasis on public safety and other spending priorities. She suggested fewer workers or perhaps part-timers be hired.
"They also need staff that is totally engaged," she added. "Some staff there is not. We have to change the culture."
The food has improved and Mulieri is working with Shumate to raise money for pet beds. About 90 are needed.
Also, Shumate said staff and volunteers are working harder to walk dogs more frequently and give them play time.
Again, he said, most of the problems come down to staffing.
"It's not an easy job," he said. "At $10 an hour, not too many people have the passion for animals, plus the diligence and hard work. You might find someone who is a good kennel worker but doesn't have the customer service skills to get these animals adopted. You have to have both."
Contact Rich Shopes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236. Follow @rshopes.