What We Are Learning

What We Are Learning

Dealing with shelter medical issues can be frustrating, but they are an opportunity to grow.

By Brandon Mustful

In my five years at Great River Rescue, I have seen all kinds of disease and other medical conditions in the shelter pets that I never even knew existed.  Some diseases have been limited to one or two pets; others have spread to many pets and could be classified as an outbreak.  Fortunately, recent disease outbreaks have been relatively minor and infrequent.  Nonetheless, they are hard to manage, frustrating for hard working staff to accept, and detrimental to the well-being of the pets.  We have learned a lot from these outbreaks, and I’m sure there is much more for us to learn.  Below are a few things that have really stuck out for me:

  1. Proper procedures are paramount.

When I started working at Great River Rescue in 2012, very little existed in terms of written procedures and guidelines for the regular care of the animals.  Now, we have about 30 pages worth of guidelines for everything from kennel cleaning, daily feeding, intake procedures, dog introductions, and more.  These written protocols are crucial to providing quality, consistent care for each and every animal.  When there is staff turnover, these written guidelines provide the basis for training in new employees and ensuring no deviations from approved methods.

Even with these written procedures, constant review and feedback is needed to keep them up-to-date.  Much has changed in the animal sheltering world in the last decade and there is so much more knowledge available in terms of proper sanitation and care for shelter pets.  Our guidelines are reviewed and revised annually, and sometimes more than that.  We also keep an eye out for new articles and webinars from groups the ASPCA, Maddie’s Fund and Best Friends of Animals Society.  These resources provide direction for shelter professionals and keep us informed on new best practices.

  1. Reaching out for help is not optional.

When faced with potential disease outbreaks, we can’t rely on ourselves alone to manage the problem.  Reaching out to our local veterinary partners, other shelters, and shelter medicine programs is crucial to being successful in combating disease.  We are very fortunate to have so many partners willing to share their experience and knowledge with us in any situation we might face.  What I’ve found is that no matter we are dealing with, someone has dealt with it before.  Learning from their experience helps us avoid learning things the hard way.

Recently, when dealing with our Ringworm outbreak in the shelter cats, we reached out to the shelter medicine program at the University of Wisconsin.  The veterinarians in the program helped us to determine exactly what we were dealing with, and how to manage it.  Not only did they respond to phone calls and emails, but they helped us get all of our cats tested, and even visited with us here in Bemidji.  Their assistance was invaluable in getting past the outbreak, and their suggestions will help us be able to prevent potential future outbreaks.

  1. We are the biggest cause of the spread of disease.

One of the many realities we have learned from our shelter medicine partners is that we are the biggest carrier and spreader of disease in the shelter.  It is the staff who work closest with the animals that can carry fomites (objects or materials that are likely to carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, and furniture) from kennel to kennel and spread disease.  It is imperative, therefore, that we limit our contact with the pets each day when we are cleaning their spaces.  It is also important that we pay attention to the order in which we clean their kennels.  For example, kennels and spaces for healthy kittens should always be cleaned before cleaning any spaces with potentially sick adult cats.

One recommendation from the shelter medicine vets, which we are working on, was to install portals in all the cat kennels.  Traditionally, cats have been housed in small, single space kennels.  These spaces usually get really messy, and they require us to remove the cat in order to clean the space.  With the installation of a portal between two kennels, we can now scoot the cat from one side to the other.  This prevents us from needing to directly handle the cat every time we clean the kennel.  Additionally, the cats tend to make much less of a mess when they have two kennels- or you could say a bathroom and a bedroom.

  1. Keeping stress low is vitally important.

Another big factor contributing to the spread of disease in shelters is stress.  Unfortunately, a shelter is already a naturally stressful environment for pets.  The animals are brought to a new place with lots of noises, smells of other animals, random people poking and prodding at them, and then they are put on display for all to see.  The animals don’t know what is happening and that can be stressful.  Just like people, that stress can compromise their immune system and lead disease to take over.  For that reason, we have to work hard to make their time here as comfortable as possible.  We need to provide them with plenty of space, toys, and a place to hide or have quiet time.  It also means that we don’t want to sanitize their kennels every day.  Every time we sanitize their kennel and give them new bedding, we are removing something that they have become familiar with.  Allowing their scent to remain in their kennel helps keep them calm and comfortable.

  1. These things will happen.

Finally, we’ve learned that no matter what we do; disease outbreaks will happen.  Sick and infected animals will enter our shelter.  What we need to do is identify high-risk animals and follow our procedures and protocol to prevent the unnecessary spread.  We need to be proactive when we see symptoms of disease.  We also need to continue to reach out to our partners when we aren’t sure about what we are seeing.  Again, despite all our efforts, sometimes disease outbreak will happen; it is just part of the job.  We will always be open and honest with the public about we are dealing with, and will work hard to keep the animals safe and healthy.

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