Let’s talk about animal shelters. Specifically, Pinellas County Animal Services. The director of Pinellas County Animal Services gave a presentation at Gulfport City Council’s March 7 regular meeting. and in about 25 minutes provided those in attendance with a number of interesting facts and trends regarding our furry friends.
What Does Pinellas County Animal Services Do?
Doug Brightwell said his department operates with 59 staff members on a $6.1 million annual budget. They also receive about $50,000 every year in donations from citizens and pet stores that handle adoptions. License fees recoup about half the budget.
The county requires licensing for dogs and cats, although not everyone participates. Brightwell said the county licensed about 204,000 active pets, but he thinks the numbers only represent about 40% of the total number of dogs and cats in Pinellas.
“That’s actually one of the highest compliance rates in the state. So our citizens are very cooperative with the licensing program,” he said. “Dog owners are much more compliant with licensing and registration than cat owners.”
His department operates the only open-admission municipal shelter in the county, taking in stray cats and dogs. Organizations such as the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the Humane Society, and Pet Pal Animal Shelter handle other species.
County staff members conduct annual inspections and permitting for the six pet stores that sell puppies, along with hobby breeders that work out of their homes and commercial kennels that board animals overnight.
The department’s volunteer program currently has 300 local volunteers; that number increases during the summer, with programs specifically for teens and younger children.
“The kids under 15 can come in with their parents and read to the dogs,” said Brightwell. “That actually works really well with keeping dogs calm in their kennels. It’s a very soothing atmosphere for the dogs. Our volunteer hours for teenagers are approved for the Bright Futures program, so many of our teenagers earn their Bright Futures hours with us.”
The community outreach program focuses on citizen education, often working with pet owners who commit minor infractions but tend to be chronic offenders – not keeping their pets secured, not licensing properly, among other things.
“We’ve repaired fences, we’ve supplied dog houses. We teach people how to build the appropriate sheltering and fencing to keep their pets at home and safe,” said Brightwell. “Sometimes it’s just teaching them how to be good pet owners. We are actually resolving a lot of long-term cases with this program, and it cuts down on officer time spent on those calls that can be used for higher-priority calls.”
The county supplies vouchers for low-income citizens and veterans who need basic vaccinations and spay-and-neuter services for their pets. Donations alone fund the program, currently about $30,000-40,000 a year.
Pinellas County Animal Services Enforcement
The enforcement division has 15 officers who take care of citizen education during field calls as well, issuing compliance citations and also working with law enforcement to prosecute those involved with cruelty and neglect.
“We’ve had several cases throughout the county just in the last few years where people were taking a large number of dogs or cats for hoarding issues or other similar cases,” said Brightwell. “We work with the state’s attorney and law enforcement to get those prosecuted.”
An open adoption process allows citizens to come in and choose the dog or cat they think will suit them without any micromanaging by county officials, he added. The foster-to-adopt program lets people foster potential pets for up to a week before final adoption. Some people have tried this with a few different potential pets before finding the right fit.
In addition to five partner shelters, the department works with nine pet stores in the county, supplying them with cats available for adoption. Brightwell said kitten season has started and several hundred kittens will get fostered, because they cannot get adopted until they reach eight weeks of age. Meanwhile, the shelter has dog playgroups to help the canines learn to socialize, which helps if they get adopted into homes with other dogs.
Dog Bites & Dangerous Dogs
About 2,000 bite reports a year are reported, mostly from dogs and cats but sometimes from wild animals like bats and raccoons. Any bite or scratch to a human that breaks the skin must get reported to authorities and the animal might get quarantined for up to 10 days for observation to see if it had rabies at the time of the bite.
Pinellas County currently has 21 dogs registered as “dangerous dogs.” This label applies to any dog who has killed or severely injured two animals in separate instances, or one human. Brightwell said the registered dogs have not killed any people, but several have caused serious injury.
Having a dangerous dog requires an additional registration fee, home inspections, and other guidelines. If such a dog gets loose and have another incident, its owners face more severe fines. Ultimately, the county might require euthanasia, but only after a lengthy legal process.
“These are only dogs; there are no dangerous cats registered at this time,” said Brightwell.
Reuniting & Rehoming Dogs & Cats
The county takes extra measures to mitigate intake of animals, and it seems to work. After taking in some 10,000 animals a year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number dropped to slightly more than 6,000 in 2022.
“We are doing everything we can to keep the animals in their homes and with their owners instead of staying with us,” said Brightwell.
To that end, about 40% of dogs typically get returned to their owners along with about 5% of cats. Cat owners are not as diligent about looking for their lost cats as dog owners, according to Brightwell, but the county still remains above the national average with these numbers.
“I think the reason cats are not as much in compliance is because people don’t own cats,” said Vice Mayor Christine Brown. “Cats own them.”
Brightwell pointed out that pet cats, by ordinance, must live indoors. The county exception for community feral cats with a clipped ear. This tipped ear indicates the cat has received the rabies vaccine and gotten sterilized.
“We want all pet cats kept inside, especially with coyotes and other predators,” he said. “Your domestic cats are not going to fare well against them.”
What Animals Need Adopting Most?
Pinellas County Animal Services has a constant need for cats to get adopted. Puppies, purebreds or small dogs available on any given day typically get adopted within an hour after the shelter opens. Larger and mixed-breed dogs and what Brightwell termed “Florida dogs” take longer. One dog has been at the shelter more than 250 days.
“But we don’t have a time limit, she is doing great, and she will live with us until she finds a home,” he said. “She is adoptable; she just hasn’t found the right family yet.”
Last year about 87% of the dogs that came through the shelter got released alive. These dogs either reunited with their owners, went to a local rescue, or got adopted. Cats averaged 82% reuniting/rehoming rate.
Does Pinellas County Euthanize Dogs & Cats?
The county euthanizes animals only if they show aggression to other animals or to humans, or if they have medical issues that the county cannot treat. The latter happens rarely, because two veterinarians on staff along with seven veterinary technicians do nearly everything imaginable when it comes to treating their four-legged patients, from heartworm relief to amputation to eye surgery.
“If their temperament is adoptable, we want to do everything to make them medically available as we can,” said Brightwell. “Those outcomes are far better than they used to be for us.”
Low-Cost & Free Microchipping
Owners of licensed pets with microchips have that information placed on file in the county’s database, making it easier to contact an owner for a reunion with a lost pet.
“As my staff will tell you, I will microchip anything that does not run away from me,” Brightwell said with a smile. “That is why we have the highest return-to-owner rate in the state for dogs and cats.” He added that when an animal comes through the shelter, Pinellas County Animal Services requires it to get microchipped before it leaves. “We do free or low-cost microchip clinics multiple times a year throughout the county,” he said. “If you go to a veterinarian, it can be quite expensive. We will do it free or low-cost and then do the registration for free.”
Every animal that comes through the county facility gets spayed or neutered before getting placed for adoption. If an animal comes in on a second occurrence within two years, Pinellas County Animal Services will sterilize it before returning it to its owner.
As with other code enforcement agencies, by state law animal control officials cannot accept anonymous complaints from citizens.
Your Pets and Hurricanes in Pinellas County
At Council’s request, Brightwell covered hurricane evacuation. His instructions were succinct and to the point.
“Have a plan for storm season. Have your food, have a carrier, have a place to evacuate,” he said, adding, “have a place to house your pets. Take your pets with you, whether it is to a shelter or outside the county. Do not leave your pets at home or outside. They don’t have any way to take care of themselves. Emergency personnel do not have the time to go back and catch the dogs left at home.”
Recent experience with Irma and Ian emphasized the fact that sheltering is not pleasant for animals or people, he added.
“If you do it once, you should try very hard never to do it again,” he said. “It is very stressful.”
Renovations are set to begin on the county shelter in a few months, and by this time next year officials expect the building to be prepared for a Category 4 hurricane.
Throughout his presentation, Brightwell emphasized the main goal of his department: keeping people’s pets where they belong.
“We want them to go home,” he said. “We don’t want to keep your dog or cat; we want it to stay with you as much as possible.”