One of the major problems that animal shelters contend with is the inevitable presence of disease. Some animals come in obviously ill, and they can (hopefully) be isolated to prevent spread of disease while they’re treated. Some animals are not obviously sick upon arrival, but are incubating an invisible illness that will show up a few days later. In the interval, they can infect dozens of other animals, who will in turn silently incubate disease while spreading it through the shelter.
Adopters really hate it when they go home with an apparently healthy animal who becomes expensively ill within days of arrival. All too often, this results in a failed adoption, the return of an actively infectious animal to the shelter, and the subsequent euthanasia of the sick pet. When it happens frequently, the shelter develops a reputation as a “sick” shelter, which drives away adopters and even makes rescue groups reluctant to pull animals from a shelter with a high frequency of contagious disease.
What kind of diseases are we talking about?
Canine parvovirus is one of the ugliest viruses to ever decimate a shelter. After an incubation period of four to seven days, it attacks multiple bodily systems; the affected animal will simply purge – nonstop diarrhea, vomiting, fever, lethargy, refusal to eat, rapid dehydration. Untreated, the mortality rate can be as high as 90%. Once upon a time, it was presumed to be a death sentence, and affected animals were quickly euthanized to prevent suffering and further contagion.
The good news is that parvo IS treatable now. Supportive care in the form of intravenous fluids is a critical step in the process. Further treatment includes antibiotics, antiemetics to slow the vomiting and diarrhea, and vitamins and electrolytes in the fluids. New and promising treatments including Tamiflu, Cerenia, and Convenia have further improved the odds of successful recovery.
Distemper is another highly contagious virus that attacks its host from every direction. The virus can appear up to eighteen days following exposure, which makes it especially nasty and tricky. It usually begins with respiratory symptoms, heavy eye and nose discharge, and high fever. Gastrointestinal problems follow, and then the hideous neurological stage, in which the brain and spinal cord become inflamed. Once a dog enters the neurological phase of the disease, the prognosis is very poor indeed. Survivors of distemper often show odd neurological twitches and tics for years, and I know of one survivor who lost her eyesight to the disease. Other signs that a dog is a distemper survivor include damage to the teeth resulting in rapid enamel erosion, and weirdly thick or hardened pads on the feet.
Untreated, distemper has about a 50% mortality rate among adult dogs. The corresponding rate among puppies and young dogs can be as high as 80%. Aggressive supportive care can greatly improve the animal’s odds of survival, but no one has identified a specific effective medication that will cure the virus. It has to run its course.
Kennel cough, or bordetella, is another highly contagious illness common in shelter environments. The incubation period runs anywhere from two to fourteen days. The disease usually presents as a hacking cough accompanied by a runny nose. Most animals recover with or without antibiotics within a couple of weeks. However, they continue to shed the active virus for several weeks afterwards.
While kennel cough is usually a fairly mild illness, it does spread like wildfire in the kennel environment. And some of the weaker, more immunocompromised animals may end up developing pneumonia, which becomes a much bigger deal to treat.
What do all of these illnesses have in common?
*They spread like crazy in the crowded environment of a shelter.
*They have an incubation period during which no one knows the dog is ill.
*They can be readily prevented by vaccinating the animals.
Certainly a multitude of other illnesses can show up in a shelter’s population as well. Leptospirosis, parasites, a variety of bacterial infections like coccidia or giardia, mange, and that least likely but most dreaded disease, rabies. But the three outlined above are some of the most dangerous and most common.
So let’s talk about those vaccinations. If every animal is vaccinated upon intake, the spread of disease in the shelter drops drastically. Animals do not develop their full immunities until several days after vaccination, but an unvaccinated animal in a shelter environment is going to get sick. An animal vaccinated on intake, going into a shelter full of vaccinated animals, is much better protected. Result over time: the entire shelter population gets healthier.
Likewise, if every animal coming through the door gets treated with an antiparasitic like Advantage Multi, it reduces the incidence of sarcoptic (contagious) mange, and it also functions as a dewormer and heartworm preventive. It also kills fleas infestations.
Sadly, the vast majority of shelters do NOT vaccinate until the moment of adoption. Those animals will sit unvaccinated and exposed for days or weeks or months, all to save a buck.
Some shelters have nonprofit organizations willing to subsidize vaccines or flea treatments. Some pharmaceutical companies will offer large bulk purchases at drastic discounts, or even donate batches of drugs nearing their expiration dates. Some companies offer incentive rebates or similar programs. The cost per animal can be kept to just a few dollars, and the payoff is huge.
A good shelter makes vaccination upon intake a priority. Because no animal should suffer or die from preventable causes while in the hands of the organization that is supposed to keep them safe.
Readers, have you asked your local shelter what their vaccination protocol is?