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Guidelines for Standard Operating Procedures for Animal Shelters Print E-mail

Written standard operating procedures (SOPs) are an important foundation for any professional organization. They ensure that all staff members are informed of what is expected and help them perform their jobs well, especially when it comes to complicated and controversial issues. Standardized policies and procedures create a clear, complete, and organizationally accepted understanding of an organization and its role within the community.

This resource was designed to help professionals within the animal care and control field gain a clearer understanding of the development and implementation of standard operating procedure. It is very important to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all model for SOPs - they need to be customized by and for each agency. Drafting out all systems, policies, and procedures in writing may seem like a daunting task to an organization which is already overburdened and underfunded, and dealing with constant chaos. But it is highly worthwhile once accomplished, as it will streamline operations and provide a roadmap for staff and management to use in making decisions.

Why Are Written SOPs Important?

SOPs provide solid infrastructure. Staff - paid or volunteer - need to know what is expected of them, need to have the tools with which to accomplish those responsibilities, and need to know that they will be held accountable for their performance. Clear operating structure can prevent random individual opinions from becoming the institutional norm. By providing them with this information you are empowering them as individuals and enabling the group to function together as one unit. Transforming an organization's mission, key goals, and objectives into day-to-day procedures helps to build awareness and motivate staff.

  • SOPs reduce risk and serve as training tools. Operational policies and procedures, joined with a structured on-the-job training program should be designed as a guide to provide new members of staff with the information and skills necessary to do their jobs. The development and documentation of operational and personnel policies - along with checks and balances that ensure that policies are implemented-are key steps in reducing and managing risks and ensuring smooth transitions between personnel changes.
  • SOPs maintain agency credibility. When a member of the public receives conflicting or inconsistent responses from the organization, its overall integrity suffers. SOPs allow for consistent representation of the organization's policies, building credibility within the community. SOPs can help your organization easily contain potential media disasters by keeping everyone on the same page when it comes to public communication.

Recommended Process for SOP Development

  1. Get Staff on Board
    It is important to make this process as inclusive of staff as possible, for several reasons:
    • Staff are dedicated, and committed to improving the organization
    • Staff are crucial to the implementation process
    • Staff are eager to participate in positive change
    • Staff know more about the daily practices in the shelter than you do
  2. Develop an Outline
    The outline can be developed by gathering existing guidelines, job descriptions and any other routinely utilized reference materials. When all this information is combined, you can then create logical categories: Office Administration, Animal Care, Animal Rescue and Control, etc. Have the outline reviewed and approved before moving forward. Once approved, use the outline to establish a format.
  3. Details, Details
    In addition to providing the "how-we-do-it," you will want to lay each section out in such a way that makes sense to those who will use it. Some procedures are simple and require only a line or two, but often, the more complex procedures are laid out in the following fashion:
    • Heading and Introduction (What)
    • General Description (Why)
    • Staff Involved (Who)
    • Steps of the Procedure itself (How)
    • Application of the Procedure (When)

It is extremely important to keep your reader in mind as you develop your format. Try to keep each area short, concise, and to the point. Use understandable language, avoid acronyms and slang, and use cross-referencing to refer readers to complementary procedures.

Be careful not to use language that is wide open to interpretation. For example, a procedure that reads, "Before placing any dogs in the general animal housing area, assess his or her temperament" is too vague. The person performing this duty must come to their own conclusion about what assessing temperament entails. If you want ALL staff to CONSISTENTLY reach the SAME conclusion, it is imperative to use detail where necessary. Stick to "will" and "shall" rather than subjective terms like "may" and "could."

You should also take care to stay organized. There will most likely be many drafts of the document floating around, so on each version include the date of the draft and the initials of the person performing the review. The last thing you want to do is accidentally give someone an outdated version, ask them to review it, and then realize your mistake.

  1. Final Draft
    The intake process can have a profound effect on the flow of animals through the shelter and sets the tone for each animal's stay. All efforts should be made to ensure that animals enter and exit the facility in as efficient a manner as possible, by implementing written protocols that reduce stress, prevent illness, and guide the decision-making process for each animal.

FINAL review should be conducted by the organization's top management and legal counsel. Once the document is completed, many shelters have found that they have benefited from an objective, external review, performed by someone outside the organization.

Each staff member should receive a copy of his/her own, and be required to read the document in its entirety by a certain date. At that time, they should sign a dated confirmation letter describing they "have read and understand the materials contained within." This document should then be placed in each staff member's personnel file as a matter of record.

A centrally located, easy-to-access copy should be available at all times.

Keep Things Current

Organizations need to ensure that policies, procedures and training programs are continually reviewed and updated, in practice as well as in writing. SOPs should be reviewed by all staff, department supervisors and the director at least once each year, and suggestions for change from staff should always be considered.

When a revision is made, the master document should be amended accordingly. A simple memo should be sent to staff informing them of minor changes, but anything beyond that should be sent to each staff person and the personnel process for distributing the original set of SOPs should be repeated.


The process of developing organizational Standard Operating Procedures can certainly be a demanding one. But, all of these efforts can do much to increase job satisfaction, improve morale and decrease turnover. And, as you have learned, the rewards are endless: they can be the guiding force in empowering an organization to be the best it can be for its employees, animals, and community.

Source:  Kate Pullen

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