Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell

Shelter Dogs  

Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell

Nutrition in the Shelter

Historically, nutrition has not been a primary concern for animal shelters. When animals are only housed for a few days, any food will do, and a recent stray is likely very hungry and not too picky.

As we move toward a goal of finding new homes for as many animals as possible and reducing euthanasia, we are housing a more diverse population of animals, often for much longer than a few days. In response to this shift, animal shelters and sanctuaries invest a great deal of time and money into improved housing, medical care, and behavioral enrichment to keep animals as healthy and happy as possible. Proper nutrition can also play a role in achieving and maintaining good health in the shelter. Here are a few important points to consider:

Information: Keep track of weights in the individual medical records. If it helps, keep a notebook or clipboard just to track weights. Weigh animals every 2-4 weeks if possible, weekly if problems are suspected. Gain or loss of more than 3% weight in an adult could indicate a problem, as can a continued gradual loss or gain. Daily observations for food and water intake, elimination, and vomiting are important, and can be noted on a checklist or cage card.

Consistency: Animals do not do well with rapid or frequent diet changes. It is best to feed the same brand and formula each day. If dry food is the main diet, canned food and treats can be varied, but should make up less than 10% of daily intake. When changes are necessary, they should be made gradually, by mixing old and new foods together.

Quantity: Many dogs and cats will become overweight in a surprisingly short time if overfed or free-fed. Create a feeding chart based on weight, and use clearly marked measuring cups to dispense food. Animals that start out under- or overweight should be fed based on their healthy weight. Treats should be safe, healthy, and in moderation!

Freshness: Fresh food and water should be offered daily, and uneaten food discarded. Throwing away too much uneaten food during cleaning each day is wasteful and expensive - if there is leftover food, either the animal is not eating well, or too much is being offered. Either way, there’s a problem. Check expiration dates, and discard food that looks or smells “off”.

Safety: To check for pet foods recalled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, go to:

A note about group housing: When cats are housed in groups, they tend to be over-fed to make sure that shy cats get enough to eat. Multiple food and water bowls should be available, but they don’t all need to be overflowing. Bowls should be spaced to prevent guarding. Groups need to be watched very carefully, and over- or underweight animals may need to be removed to solo housing.