At storEDGE, we absolutely love dogs. My very first day in the office, I noticed a dog bowl set up in the kitchen and saw some cat toys and a scratching post in the support room. “Is there...a cat in here?” I asked our HR employee who was giving me a tour.

“Yeah, probably. The girls in Ops bring their cats sometimes. But they might be hiding today,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and looking around. “Dan brings his dogs sometimes, too.” I was thrilled to find out puppies were one of our workplace perks.

Since that first day at the office, it’s become common to see one of my coworker’s furry friends lounging by their desk and getting all kinds of love from our team. The storEDGE office is pet-friendly. Just seeing a dog in the office offers immediate stress-relief for many of our employees.

So when we hear about the cruel and illegal act of animals being “stored” in storage units, it hits close to home. As a company of animal lovers working the self storage industry, we refuse to accept pets being kept inhumanely in self-storage units as the grim reality.

A cozy, snuggly puppy and his best piggy friend. Image by green kozi via Flickr.

The facts

There’s always going to be people who want to store things illegally in their storage units. For some people, it’s drug paraphernalia. For others, it’s cats. But keeping live animals in a storage unit doesn’t just violate their renter’s agreement. It’s cruel, inhumane and often lethal for the animal.

Self storage units aren’t adequate kennels for a multitude of reasons. There’s no light, no ventilation, no sanitation, and the animals are exposed to extreme temperatures. Crates are likely to be stacked on top of each other two or three crates high, and the animals are usually neglected in these conditions. Most pets recovered from storage units (if they’re still alive) are starving or malnourished, extremely dehydrated, covered in excrement, and in desperate need of veterinary care for lung and skin infections and treatment of parasites. The experience of being kept in a dark storage unit with zero interaction is also extremely mentally damaging and traumatic for the animal. If they survive, they’re likely to have a multitude of social and health problems for the rest of their life.

Unfortunately, this happens all too often in self storage. In April, a woman was charged with animal cruelty after a puppy was found in a storage unit in South Carolina. In June, 28 cats and kittens were rescued from a storage unit in Ohio. Last year in August, 23 cats were rescued from a sweltering hot storage unit in Florida. Before that, half a dozen puppies were rescued from a storage unit in Texas and 13 dogs were rescued from a storage unit linked to a puppy mill in New York.

Hello, friend. Image by International Fund for Animal Welfare Animal Rescue via Flickr.

Why would anybody want to keep animals in a storage unit?

If you’re baffled by people who continue to make the outrageous choice to store animals in a storage unit, consider these driving factors:

Orange you glad I didn't say meow. Image via Flickr.

1. Animal hoarding

We’ve all seen or heard of hoarders who simply cannot part with their possessions. This same obsessive need to keep and accumulate items also occurs with pets. Animal hoarders keep numerous animals (sometimes in deplorable living conditions) and fail to recognize that they aren’t being properly cared for. Animal hoarding can be related to addiction or dementia, and it results in the individual refusing to let the animals go, even when the animals are clearly lacking in proper care and nourishment.

Animal hoarders might be confronted by law enforcement and asked to get rid of a number of their animals. Sometimes this works and the animal hoarder does decrease their pet population, but often they simply hide the animals from law enforcement somewhere else on their property or somewhere else, like inside a rented storage unit. Animal hoarders do not recognize that their pets are suffering, and feel a strong need to take care of and protect animals. This results in the accumulation of more and more pets.

Big dogs and small apartments don't mix. Image by Erin Campbell Smith via Flickr.

2. Apartment regulations

35% of Americans live in rented homes or apartments, and the last few years have seen the strongest rental growth since the 1980s. With renting comes strict landlord or apartment regulations, nearly all of them limiting the number and kind of pets that renters can have. Most apartments have rules against dogs over fifty pounds, ferrets, and exotic pets. Sometimes renters try to hide a pet from their landlord, and when the pet is discovered they are consequentially asked to get rid of it or face eviction.

In a lot of these cases, the renter doesn’t get rid of the pet and instead finds a place to keep the pet for the time being until they can find a different apartment to live in. Sometimes the pet will go to a friend’s or parent’s home, other times they end up living in a backyard, a car or - you guessed it - a storage unit. If the renter has fallen on hard times financial or has shaky credit, it could take them weeks or months to find a new place to live, so the pet gets bounced around from place to place until they’ve exhausted all options.

Puppies and snow = best friends. Image by Rob Swatski via Flickr.

3. Moving or Homelessness

Similar to having strict apartment regulations, pets can end up in storage units when their owners are moving or lose their home suddenly. Pet owners may not have a place to keep their dog in the process of moving. They’ve already rented a storage unit for their other stuff, so it becomes a good idea in their mind to just leave Fido there for a little while, too. Their sense of normalcy is so thrown off from the stress of moving, that keeping an animal in a storage unit temporarily becomes a good idea in their mind.

Over 3.5 million Americans are homeless, and nearly 10% of homeless people have dogs or cats. Every homeless person’s situation is unique: some have lost their homes or jobs, some are addicts, some are parolees, disabled, victims of abuse, teens, or veterans. Pets provide a deep comfort and sense of security to the homeless. If you’re renting a unit to a homeless person, they may attempt to live in the storage unit alongside their animals. These renters are desperate and just trying to survive, but it’s never a good idea to let renters live in their storage unit. For more information on this, check out this article on how (and why) to prevent live-in renters.

Puppies for sale online can often have a dark and hidden secret. Image by Cyril Lookin via Flickr.

4. Breeding or selling

Inhumane commercial dog breeding is a serious problem in America, with the worst offenders being the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma. These states have an excessively high prevalence of large-scale commercial dog breeding facilities, also known as puppy mills.

So what is a puppy mill? Puppy mills are breeding facilities that give priority to profit over the well-being of the animals, with animals being kept in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions without proper veterinary care or nourishment. These commercial breeders then sell to pet shops or to consumers through their website, or on sites like Craigslist or Facebook. At a pet shop or online, it is easy to hide the deplorable conditions these puppies (and their parents) were living in, and consumers often believe that buying a puppy from a breeder or pet shop will ensure they’re getting a high quality animal.

Once a puppy mill has been identified by law enforcement, the breeder faces fines or the potential to lose their license to breed and keep animals - often their sole source of income. To keep the money coming in, these breeders try to hide their pets from law enforcement on a different property or in a rented property, like a storage unit, until they can sell them online or through pet shops. The priority of puppy mill breeders and sellers is making a quick buck, not the welfare of their animals.

If you're thinking about getting an exotic pet, think again. Image by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr.

5. Illegal activity (blackmarket pets)

Sometimes the pets your renters are keeping are just plain illegal to keep. Exotic pets can be anything from alligators to tigers, Capuchin monkeys to sugar gliders. There is a high demand for exotic (and extremely illegal) pets, and people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to buy them from black market breeders. Finding black market exotic animal breeders is as easy as a Craigslist search, “slow loris in my zip code.”

Exotic pet laws vary from state to state, as there is no federal law on which exotic pets are legal and which are not. For example, ferrets are legal in all states besides California and Hawaii. Many ferrets are sold illegally in California, and these breeders need a place to hide their ferret breeding operation - sometimes they turn to a storage unit. It is very difficult to provide adequate care, housing and nutrition to exotic pets, so many of them live in inhumane conditions and suffer from malnourishment.

Cats are great snuggle buddies. Image by debra via Flickr.

How to keep pets out of your facility

Now that you know how pets end up in storage facilities, it’s important to take steps to prevent this from happening at your facility. The most important way you can prevent animals from being stored at your facility is to make sure your rental agreement firmly states your no pets allowed policy and the consequences.

Next, be nosy. Ask new tenants a lot of questions: What are you storing? How long are you needing storage? What do you do? Do you have any references? Often these probing questions are enough to scare away a renter who is hoping to fly under your radar.

Make yourself and cameras at the facility highly visible to renters. Walk through the facility frequently and spend time talking with renters by their units. People will think twice about sneaking an animal into one of your units if you seem to have eyes in the back of your head.

Here are some more helpful tips for keeping animals safe and away from storage units:

Puppies are the best snuggle buddies, in my opinion. Image by Thierry Marysael via Flickr.

1. Learn the warning signs

A renter looking to store animals in a storage unit may give you some warning signs. While there are many reasons a renter may try to store animals in your facility, there are a few classic red flags associated with this type of renter:

  • Physical appearance and odor. If a renter is an animal hoarder, they will often have a strong, unpleasant stench of ammonia from living in the same conditions as their animals. Appearing to neglect their own self-care is also a warning sign of animal hoarding, even when the animals live separately from the hoarder.

  • Isolated from the community. Animal hoarders are often socially awkward and choose to isolate themselves from social situations. They may live alone in a place that is a great distance from the nearest neighbor.

  • Animal lover. While not all animal lovers are animal hoarders, almost all animal hoarders are animal lovers. They may talk at great length about their pets and be in denial about their inability to care for their animals properly.

  • Frequent visits to their storage unit. There are many tenants who may need to make frequent visits to their storage unit (like contractors who work out of their unit) so this isn’t a red flag as much as it is an orange flag. However, if you’re seeing this coupled with other signs, definitely keep an eye out.

This cat is more photogenic than me. Image by Kitty Mao via Flickr.

2. Keep excellent routines around security

Does your facility manager know what to do if they hear barking coming from a storage unit? Make sure everyone who works at your facility completes training around security and knows what to do if they hear or see suspicious activity. Here are some security tips to keep animals out of storage units at your facility:

  • Keep a gate log. This is the first place to check if you suspect suspicious activity. Does your renter make frequent trips around the same time every day? Do they stay for extended periods of time? Check it consistently and make notes of anything that seems suspicious.

  • Audit video recordings against your gate log. If your facility has 24-hour security, make sure you’re not just bluffing by actually auditing your video log. Check the cameras against the records of your gate log and see if there are any suspicious comings or goings that were missed by the gate.

  • Conduct regular check-ups of storage units. Outline in your agreements that you’ll conduct random check-ups on a monthly basis, or set a unit check-up schedule to perform routine maintenance inside the units. If tenants know you conduct walk-throughs every month, they’ll be less likely to store illegal items. Plus, you’ll be able to tell if the renter was previously using the unit for animal storage if you see animal hair on the ground, cages stacked up, or smell something funky.

  • Have a relationship with local law enforcement. Letting law enforcement’s canine units practice drug sniffing at your facility can be a huge crime deterrent. If you’re not comfortable with drug sniffing dogs, even just scheduled drive-throughs or drive-bys can be helpful at preventing illegal activity.

  • Have signs posted. “SMILE! YOU ARE ON CAMERA” or “ABSOLUTELY NO PETS ALLOWED” posted throughout the facility can be enough to make tenants looking to store things illegally feel wary. While these signs might not be enough to deter hardcore criminals, it reminds the rest of your tenants how seriously you take security at the facility.

Have a watchdog (or watchcat) at your facility. Image by Don Burkett via Flickr.

3. Have a watchdog at your facility (literally)

“I’m suspicious of people who don’t like dogs, but I trust a dog when it doesn’t like a person.” - Bill Murray.

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense, right? If you have resident cats that live at your facility or a dog that comes to work with you every day, you might be doing more than just keeping away mice. Dogs and cats can be excellent security guards. While sweet and loving with people, dogs and cats are quick to point out sketchy behavior. Here’s how having a dog or guard kitty at your facility can help:

  • Your new mascot. If you have a resident cat or dog at your facility, your customers will immediately remember you. Most people will love petting Fido and seeing him around the facility. To be considerate of people who are afraid of or allergic to dogs, move the dog or cat into the office or behind the counter so that all customers feel safe and welcome.

  • Added security. From barking at unwelcome after hours visitors and warding off potential burglars, to sniffing and scratching at units that have animals being stored inside, your dog has a heightened sense of sight and smell that can warn you of trouble.

If you’re thinking about bringing a watchdog into your self storage business, check out this article to learn more about the pros and cons of having a dog or cat at your facility.

Watchcats can sometimes sleep on the job. Image by Thryn via Flickr.

4. Trust your gut

If your gut is telling you that someone or something feels ‘off’ or your inner voice is saying there’s something strange going on, listen to it! There are many cases where a facility manager says they had a ‘feeling’ about a tenant but no proof, and so they did some investigating and found out there was illegal activity going on. Trust your intuition and don’t ignore the feelings you associate with a renter.

  • Take notes of anyone or anything that feels ‘off’. If something doesn’t feel right, make a note of it and talk about it with your peers. You might not be the only one who noticed or thinks the tenant’s behavior is concerning. Share the information so that you can all be on watch for any suspicious behavior.

  • Run a background check. If you have good relationships with local law enforcement in place, they might be able to run a background check for little to no cost. You can also look up background information right from your computer. Check out this article on how to run background checks on your tenants.

Are you feeling 'puzzled' by cats in self storage? Image by Pete Zarria via Flickr.

Protect the animals and your facility’s reputation

The most important thing you can take away from this article? Be vigilant about suspicious activity at your facility to prevent pets from being kept in storage units. Utilize security systems and good ol’ fashioned intuition to keep illegal activity at bay. Whether you’re an animal lover or not, when it comes to animals being kept in storage units, your facility’s reputation is on the line.

If you liked this article, you may also like: How (and Why) to Prevent Live-In Renters, Background Checks - Right for Your Storage Facility?, and How to Protect Your Storage Facility from Summertime Pests.