Welcoming pets into a domestic violence or homeless shelter is a crucial and compassionate step in caring for people in crisis in your community. Shelter staff are well versed in the medical processes and protocols for guests, but what about those processes and protocols for pets? What are the typical medical needs of pets that shelter staff should prepare for during intake?

You’ll need to work with your veterinary partner to develop intake guidelines and medical protocols for pets. These guidelines and protocols should clearly detail which responsibilities belong to the veterinary provider, shelter staff, and pet parent. Check out the Don’t Forget the Pets Document Library for sample partner agreements and MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding).

If possible, every pet entering your program should be examined by a veterinary professional to assess health and behavioral needs. Veterinary staff should perform a physical examination, which will include looking at body condition, skin and coat health, examining the pet’s ears, nose, face, mouth, and teeth, collecting a current weight, and measuring their temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate. Depending on the pet’s medical and behavioral history, they may administer vaccines, medications, or other treatments. 

Shelter staff and pet parents should learn how to perform a quick exam of the pet in order to note any obvious issues or abnormalities for the veterinary care provider. This can help expedite the process and make sure that concerns are addressed once the veterinarian arrives for an official health assessment. We’ve included a couple of resources on how to perform a basic exam on cats and dogs, but we recommend talking with your animal welfare partner to learn hands-on exam basics. 

It’s also important to remember that many people have animal companions other than cats and dogs, making it essential that domestic violence and homeless services staff have connections with animal service providers that offer care for other types of pets, such as rodents, birds, and reptiles. Medical care for one species may not be the same for another.


Core vaccines for cats and dogs are key to preventing pets from becoming ill, minimizing the risk of infectious diseases, and preventing outbreaks. Check with your animal shelter or veterinary partner for specific recommendations and local vaccine mandates. Vaccine guidelines depend on a number of factors, including species, age, location, type of housing (e.g. in-room sheltering versus community cat room), vaccination history, and the pet’s current medical condition. Additionally, many apartments, pet boarding, and pet daycare facilities require pets to be up-to-date on vaccinations. Ensuring that this medical need is addressed as soon as possible after intake helps set both the pet and their person up for success. 

Core Feline Vaccines
  • Rabies
  • Feline leukemia (FeLV)*
  • Feline herpesvirus-1 (rhinotracheitis/FHV-1)
  • Feline calicivirus (FCV)
  • Feline panleukopenia (FPV)
Core Canine Vaccines
  • Rabies
  • Distemper
  • Adenovirus
  • Parvovirus 
  • Parainfluenza

* The Feline Leukemia (FeLV) vaccine is considered a core vaccine for cats and kittens under 1 year, and non-core (optional) for cats older than 1 year.

For feline vaccines, you will often see FHV-1, FCV, FPV combined into one core vaccine, called FVRCP, which protects against all three viruses. Similarly, canine vaccines for Distemper, Adenovirus, Parvovirus and Parainfluenza are typically also available as a combo vaccine. 

In addition to core vaccines, additional non-core vaccines may be recommended for some pets based on their lifestyle, location, and risk of exposure. These may include bordetella and chlamydia for cats, and leptospira, canine Lyme disease, bordetella, canine influenza, and crotalus atrox toxoid (rattlesnake vaccine) for dogs. 

Spay & Neuter

Spaying female and neutering male pets provides immense health and behavioral benefits for both the pet and other animals in the household. 

Benefits include:

  • Decreased spraying and urine-marking behavior.
  • Limited roaming and escape behavior.
  • Decreased risk of uterine, mammary, ovarian, and testicular cancer.
  • Eliminated risk of pyometra, a potentially fatal infection of the uterus.
  • Reduction of unwanted behaviors like yowling, mounting, and aggression.
  • Eliminated risk of pregnancy which helps control over-population.
  • Increased average lifespan.
  • And many more! Check the ASPCA, AVMA, and the HSUS for more information.

Talk with your vet partner about low-cost options and check for local government programs that provide financial assistance for spay and neuter surgeries. While spay/neuter services should not become a barrier for people and pets in crisis, it should be discussed (with resources available) when clients enter shelter. 

While health assessments and vaccinations are tasks that need to be performed by a veterinary professional, there are many treatments that can be easily provided by shelter staff or the pet parent under the guidance of the shelter’s veterinary partner. This can include administering dewormer, flea and tick preventative, additional parasite treatment, and using cleaning or grooming tools and treatments. Discuss treatment instructions with your veterinary partner and receive training on proper techniques for handling animals and administering medications and treatments.

* Check out Fear Free, an organization that provides programs and courses focused on preventing and alleviating fear, anxiety, and stress in pets during handling.

Parasite Treatment

Animal shelters typically deworm cats and dogs upon intake, regardless of the pet’s age or medical history as various types of worms can be easily passed to other animals. Dewormer is an important part of keeping pets and people onsite safe and healthy. 

Dosage of deworming medication varies depending on the pet’s species, age, weight, and additional symptoms. While some treatments are available without a prescription, we recommend consulting with your veterinary partner on how and when to administer. 

*A helpful tool to have in stock are fecal containers, which are available online and through your veterinary partner. If an animal at the shelter is producing stool that seems abnormal, off-color, loose, or if worms are present, fecal containers allow you to properly collect and store samples to bring to the veterinary clinic for laboratory testing. Check out this resource from a veterinary clinic on how pet parents should collect and store stool samples at home. 

Endoparasites (Internal Parasites)

Pyrantel pamoate is a popular oral dewormer used to treat intestinal worm infections, such as roundworm, hookworm, and pinworm in dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents, horses, and birds. It is typically given on intake as a single dose and additional doses are given per a veterinarian-approved deworming protocol.

Praziquantel is an effective dewormer used for tapeworm treatment and is available by prescription in both oral and injectable forms. This medication is typically not necessary to give upon intake, but it is very helpful to have in stock should a staff member or pet parent notice tapeworms in stool or on a pet’s coat. 

Heartworm disease is serious and can be fatal, therefore using heartworm preventative is essential. The disease is caused by Dirofilaria immitis, a blood-borne parasite that is transmitted through the bite of infected mosquitos. Heartworm preventatives come in many different forms and treatment abilities. Similar to flea treatment, some heartworm preventatives also provide protection from ticks, mites, and intestinal worms. This medication is provided by prescription only, so be sure to talk with your veterinarian and pet parents when new pets arrive in the shelter. 

Ectoparasites (External Parasites)

Flea preventative is an essential long-acting medication to have for pets that come into shelter and is available both over the counter or through prescription. Making sure every pet stays up to date on flea preventative is important as flea infestations can occur easily and quickly. 

Some flea medications treat multiple parasites, such as ticks, mites, and lice, while also preventing heartworm infections and intestinal worms. Preventatives vary in their duration of effectiveness as some last for 4 to 6 weeks, while others can last up to 3 months. Administration differs as some medications are applied topically while others are given orally. It is critical to read the directions carefully.

Popular treatments for cats include Cheristin, Advantage II, Frontline Plus, and Revolution Plus. Popular treatments for dogs include Advantage Multi, Frontline Plus, and Simparica Trio. 

Capstar (nitenpyram) is an extremely beneficial fast-acting oral flea treatment for dogs and cats. This medication is given as a single dose and can kill fleas within 30 minutes. It works wonders for pets that come in with active flea infestations. 

Cleaning & Grooming

Dogs and cats have very sensitive eyes, making eye care an important part of every pet’s health. While eye infections and other issues will likely require a prescription medication, sterile saline solution or pet-specific eye wash can provide an immediate way to temporarily soothe eyes, flush out debris, or relieve eye itchiness.    

Ear cleanser for pets can be used to gently clean dirt, debris, and excess wax from the ear. It is important to use gauze or cotton balls when cleaning the ears. Avoid using cotton tip applicators (Q-tips), as that tool can push dirt deeper into the canal and potentially cause harm. 

Pet shampoo is important for animals that come into shelter in need of a deep clean, whether they are simply dirty or if they are dealing with a more serious skin issue, such as a flea infestation. However, bathing can be a very stressful experience for pets, so it is recommended to consult with a veterinarian or professional groomer on bathing best practices. 

Using nail clippers for regular nail trims helps prevent nails from becoming sharp and overgrown. This protects people and other animals from getting scratched, protects furniture from becoming damaged, and most importantly, prevents the nails from embedding into pets’ paw pads, which is extremely painful. For cats, provide plenty of places in your shelter for them to scratch naturally, such as cat towers and scratching posts. Nail trims can cause stress for both pets and pet parents, and it can be easy to accidentally trim too much, so be sure to learn how to safely trim nails from an animal welfare professional. Fear Free has excellent resources on creating a tension-free nail trimming experience, including this how-to video, and a downloadable pdf

Author Profile

Ketia Johnson is a Community Outreach Coordinator with RedRover. Prior to joining the Don’t Forget the Pets team, she earned her Master’s degree in Anthrozoology from Canisius College and spent over 8 years working in veterinary medicine at animal shelters.