Safe, effective animal handling demands total concentration on the animal you are handling and the knowledge to read the body language that animal is displaying. Taking a few moments to visually assess the dog or cat you are about to handle can make your job both safer and easier. Is the animal you are about to move someone’s healthy, even-tempered pet who just strayed out of the backyard? A feral cat? An undersocialized Chihuahua who has never been out of her home before? The latest feline victim of high-rise syndrome? Your handling technique and the tools you choose to assist you would vary depending on the scenario.
Handling Healthy, Even-Tempered Animals
Signs: No signs of illness or injury. Animal is at the front of the cage exhibiting relaxed body postures–sprawled out in a prone position possibly with belly exposed, sitting upright and alert. Head-bumping and scent marking with glands in the chin and above the eyes (cats). Wiggly body, bouncing up and down, tail wagging, licking and nose nudging (dogs).
Before opening the cage door, speak to the animal in a pleasant, upbeat voice. Let the animal sniff at your fingers through the bars. If you have never handled this animal before, review the information on the kennel card.
Prepare kennel rope or lead to slip over animal’s head or attach to collar. Open cage door just enough to slip lead onto dog without letting the dog loose. Use inside of your knee/leg or your hip/shoulder to control the door to free up both of your hands should you need them to keep a rambunctious animal in the kennel. When using a slip lead, keep lead taut enough that the dog cannot back out of it if startled. Allow the dog to exit the cage.
To return a dog to a walk-in cage, open the cage door fairly wide and use a forward-moving arm gesture while moving the lead forward and uttering the command “go in.” For dogs who balk, try throwing a treat in ahead of them. Quickly close the door as soon as the dog jumps in. Open a crack to take off the lead after the dog is already kenneled. Do not enter the cage with the dog unless you are totally familiar with the dog. Some dogs become territorial about their space and walking into their cages could provoke a bite.
For smaller dogs who are housed in higher level cages, after slip lead is put on, place one hand behind the dog’s head and grab the ring and lead to prevent it from tightening up and to prevent the dog from turning around and nipping. The other hand reaches over the back and supports the chest and abdomen. Lift up and cradle the dog’s body against yours while holding the head away from you if necessary. Carry or place on the floor. Return the dog to the cage the same way. Immobilize the head by grasping the lead behind the head, reach over the back and cradle the chest in the palm of your hand and then lift back into the cage.
The handling technique for cats is similar to that of small dogs. Instead of holding the lead behind the head, place the crook of your hand (area between thumb and forefinger) on the cat’s neck at the base of the skull to keep the cat facing away from the handler. Reach your other arm over the cat’s back and support the chest and abdomen with your hand and forearm, cradling the cat against your body (football carry). Move to another cage or a carrier. I do not recommend carrying cats any great distance as they are highly reactive animals which can easily startle, changing from friendly to defensive aggressive in a few short seconds.
Handling Fearful Animals
Signs: Dilated pupils. Standing or lying tensely at the rear of the cage. Facing the back corner of the cage, glancing over the shoulder to keep handler in sight. Ears pulled back. Tucked tail in dogs. Agitated tail swishing in cats.
Speak to the animal in a soft, soothing yet upbeat tone of voice. Stand sideways or crouch down near cage. Looming over the animal directly head on will only increase the fear level. Avoid direct eye contact for it can be misconstrued as a challenge to fight. Whenever possible, allow the animal to approach the front of the cage and check you out in its own time. Offer a treat without making eye contact. It is a good sign if the animal is relaxed enough to take the treat.
It is safer to take the time to allow the animal to come to you rather than entering into the cage or reaching in to grab it. Most fearful animals would rather flee than fight, but they will bite if they feel cornered. Whenever possible, give a fearful animal 12-48 hours to acclimate before removing it from its cage for a procedure. Fearful cats will relax faster if the cage front is covered by paper or a towel. Fearful dogs should be housed in the quietest area of the kennel.
To move mildly fearful dogs, try to get them on lead without entering too far into the cage. Once on lead, gently coax the dog out of the cage. Allow the dog some extra leash so he can move 3-5 feet away from the handler. Muzzle with either the lead or a sleeve muzzle before treatment if necessary. Hold the dog in a firm yet gentle manner against your body and continue to talk to the dog in a soft, confident tone. Do not remove the muzzle until the dog has been placed back on the floor or if thrashing around, until back in his cage.
Use an animal control pole to move excessively fearful dogs that absolutely must be moved. While this may very well increase the fear, handler safety can be maintained.
The importance of moving slowly and quietly in a gentle manner cannot be stressed strongly enough when handling fearful cats. Mildly fearful cats can be most easily handled by grabbing the scruff at the back of the neck with one hand and holding the forepaws with the other hand while using your elbow to hold the rear weight of the cat’s body against your side.
If it is absolutely necessary to handle a very fearful cat, use a large, thick towel or blanket to scoop up the cat and place it in a carrier. To remove from a carrier into another cage, open the carrier and tilt slightly into the cage. As the cat steps out and retreats to the back of the cage, swiftly close the door.
For feral cats, use of a squeeze cage or net is recommended for inoculations.
Handling Aggressive Animals
Signs: Growling, snarling, snapping, attempting to bite. Charging the front of the cage. Standing frozen at the front of the cage and hard-staring people. Ferocious barking and lunging.
If it is not absolutely necessary to handle an animal when it is acting aggressively, don’t. If you must, take every possible precaution. Make use of your animal control pole with dogs and cat graspers or net with cats. Never use an animal control pole on a cat. Whenever possible, have a second experienced handler with you to assist you should something go wrong. Double leashing (where two handlers have an aggressive dog leashed between them on taut leads) may be considered in areas where you may not be able to use a pole. Consider tranquilization.
In the event that a dog you are moving on lead tries to attack you, move your leash arm up and away from your body. An attack on a human being is the only time it is appropriate to execute a maneuver called “hanging” a dog. The idea is to cut off the dog’s air supply long enough to make the dog light-headed in order to stem the attack. This defensive tactic should only be executed when the handler is in jeopardy and the dog can be swiftly returned to a cage.
Handling Sick and Injured Animals
Signs: Labored breathing. The presence of blood, mucous, or open wounds. Limbs at odd angles. Limping, whimpering, lethargy, not eating.
The sweetest animal in the world can bite in response to pain. Before handling an injured animal, if possible ask medical personnel to assess the animal before moving it to determine the proper handling technique for the specific injury. If an animal is brought to the shelter in a box or carrier, keep it confined there until a medical exam is possible when circumstances allow.
Once a medical exam has been completed and the animal has been treated, take special care to be gentle with the animal. Avoid putting any pressure on the injured area. For dogs with neck injuries like embedded collars or tracheal collapse, provide body harnesses for movement since regular slip leads cannot be used. Soft bedding is particularly important for animals with splints and casts. Elizabethan collars (e-collars) may be necessary to prohibit chewing on bandages. Since e-collars intensify noise and block an animal’s peripheral vision, try to kennel the animal in as quiet a spot as possible during recuperation.
By assessing the individual animal’s behavior and responding accordingly, your handling skills will protect both ends of the lead.