How To Volunteer: Do Something!

I recently witnessed a regrettably common phenomenon in the animal welfare world. A new volunteer posted an especially snarky attack on another volunteer. It went something like this:


“Well, I’VE never seen you up here scrubbing cages, so you must not be a REAL volunteer!”


Implication: “If you don’t volunteer the way I do, it doesn’t count. If I don’t witness it, it doesn’t count. And if you do volunteer, my volunteer work is better and more important than yours.”


Dear new volunteer, the fact is that we’ve never seen you either. We don’t know what you do, or if you’re good at it. We actually don’t really care, because those of us who have been in the animal welfare world for a long time know that there are many, many valuable ways to contribute.


The same week, I met a very nice lady who wants to volunteer, but has schedule limitations. So she was trying to find ways to contribute time and effort that would allow her the schedule flexibility she requires. If “Snarky New Volunteer” had met her first, SNV would have made it clear that any volunteer plans that weren’t as demanding as hers were simply not good enough. And “Nice Potential Volunteer” would probably have been discouraged and given up her plans to find ways to help.


This timely juxtaposition made me do some thinking about all the different ways people can help shelters and rescues. No matter how limited your time or resources are, there is always something. Check out this list of ideas:


Walk dogs.


Shelter dogs spend 24 hours a day in small spaces with no interaction and no room to run. It can have a terrible effect on their personalities and even cause them to develop serious behavioral issues. Walking dogs is a great way to socialize them, get them some exercise, and learn more about their personalities (which helps place them in the right home).


Bathe dogs.


Shelter animals stink. They have that distinctive kennel smell, plus they may have already been filthy upon arrival. Bathing them makes them more attractive, more comfortable, and correspondingly, more adoptable.


Transport animals.


Rescues and shelters ALWAYS need someone to drive an animal to the vet, pick an animal up, move an animal to or from a foster home, pick up medications, and take animals to offsite events.


Work adoption events.


Adoption events desperately need volunteers who are good at multitasking, animal handling, people handling, administrative tasks, and organizational skills.


Do laundry.


Kennels. Shelter animals. They use vast amounts of towels, and those towels all have to be washed, dried and made ready for use.


Network online.


Any shelter or rescue simply MUST have a good online team to answer questions from the general public. They may be looking for a lost pet, inquiring about one they wish to adopt, or trying to sign up as a foster. Someone needs to answer those inquiries quickly and professionally.


Do food drives.


Shelters in particular usually need donated food to help spread a tight budget farther.


Fund Raise.


Every animal welfare organization needs money. The next big vet bill is always lurking around the corner…




Animal welfare group always need people who are willing to open their homes and hearts to needy animals on a temporary basis. Fostering is a critical component in the adoption process.


These are just a few of the simplest and most obvious ways any potential volunteer can give time, money, and physical labor to the animal welfare cause of your choice. We all have to find the right way to volunteer that accommodates the demands of our own lives.


And don’t ever let some snarky know-it-all newbie tell you that you’re not a real volunteer because she has never met you.

Commissioners’ Court

Yesterday was my second trip to Commissioners’ Court to address my concerns about the current situation at MCAS.


You may recall that Commissioners’ Court is the body that controls pretty much everything in this county. There are 4 commissioners (Meador, Noack, Clark, Riley) and a county judge (Doyal). Here’s how the court is described on the county website:


“The Statutory duties and responsibilities of county officials in Texas are numerous.  County government’s principal focus is on the judicial system, health and social service delivery, law enforcement, and road construction.  The Commissioners Court is the governing body of the county.  The Texas Constitution specifies that the court consists of a county judge and four county commissioners elected by the qualified voters of individual commissioners’ precincts.  Many state administrative responsibilities rest with the court.  The Commissioners Court serves as both the legislative and executive branches of county government and has budgetary authority over all county departments, including those headed by other elected officials.”



The Commissioners’ Court system is extremely convoluted. For example, I have learned that if more than two commissioners are in the same place at the same time, it becomes an “official” meeting that has to be documented and recorded. So the very commissioners who are responsible for making the decisions that govern this county can’t sit down to lunch as a group without someone to take the minutes of what kind of pizza they want. While I understand the rationale behind this rule, it certainly makes trying to get things done a lot more cumbersome.


In this session, the very first item put before the court had to do with the recent seizure of over 200 pitifully neglected horses; the District Attorney and the County Attorney asked the Commissioners to contribute $15,000 toward the care and feeding of these animals during the next phase of the case. I was very pleased with Judge Doyal’s response; he said that having seized the horses, the county now has a responsibility to take care of them properly. Yes! Exactly!


Just like they have a responsibility to care for the 900+ animals in the shelter, and the dozens (hundreds?) more in foster care.


At every Commissioners’ Court session, there is a time allotted for members of the community to speak to the court. Any person who wishes to speak gets exactly three minutes. No exceptions. At the most recent session, one person attempted to “defer” his three minutes to give more time to another speaker. No go. Someone else attempted to speak twice, hoping for three minutes per issue. That didn’t happen either.


In addition to those people who spoke about the road bond issues and other assorted community issues, at least half a dozen people addressed their concerns about the state of animal welfare in our county. (In the interests of full disclosure, I was one of them.) Different people spoke about untreated (or improperly treated) illnesses, the distemper outbreak, poor customer service, unpleasant environment, lack of communication, fiscal concerns, and a variety of related issues.


The rules of the court prevent the commissioners from directly addressing any concerns expressed during the citizen commentary, but they can sure listen. And they had a lot to listen to.


One of the drawbacks to the Commissioners’ Court system is that it calls upon 5 elected officials to be responsible for so many different topics and aspects of government. There is no way that these 5 people can understand every aspect of every department, and I often feel that they, like most people, have a very minimal comprehension of what it really takes to run a large open intake county shelter properly. But most people aren’t responsible for over 25,000 canine and feline souls per year. They are. We elected them. We gave them the responsibility.


I hope they learn fast. We’re counting on them, and so are the animals.




PS: A couple of minutes on Google will tell any internet surfer that multiple animal shelters in Texas are either currently under investigation or have been busted for a variety of crimes including animal cruelty.


And let’s not forget this one…



For dog people, one of the scariest words in the English language is distemper. Distemper is a terrible, devastating virus with an extremely high fatality rate. The good news is that there is a vaccine that renders distemper extremely preventable.


Who can get distemper?


We primarily associate this virus with dogs, but it can also affect ferrets, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and wolves. (Interesting side note: per, the distemper virus is related to the human measles virus.) The most susceptible dogs are always those under a year old, but older unvaccinated dogs are also quite vulnerable.


The distemper virus is highly contagious; it is airborne, but can also be transmitted by secondary contact. In other words, an unvaccinated animal can contract the virus through contact with toys, bedding, or food and water dishes that have been touched by an infected animal. If a person handles an infected animal, and then handles an unvaccinated or immunocompromised animal, the virus can be transferred by means of that person’s skin or clothing.


The Virus


Once an animal has been exposed to the distemper virus, the incubation period before illness manifests is usually between 7 and 14 days; however, it can take up to six weeks for symptoms to present. Initial symptoms include a high fever, discharge from the eyes and nose, and a refusal to eat. The dog will appear extremely depressed and withdrawn. To the nonclinical eye, dogs in this stage of the disease may appear to have an upper respiratory infection.


As the disease progresses, it attacks the digestive system. The dog will probably be coughing, vomiting, and suffering from acute diarrhea. Given that a dog in this state will not be willing to eat, dehydration becomes a real threat. A few odd symptoms like a characteristic thickening and hardening of the paw pads may also appear.


From respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, the dog will move into the neurological stage of the disease. Once a dog has “gone neuro,” the odds of survival drop sharply. The neurological phase is caused by the virus attacking the dog’s central nervous system. Early neuro symptoms may include twitching of the legs or body, facial tics, and uncontrollable working of the jaws (often called “chewing gum” behavior). More serious symptoms include full-blown grand mal seizures caused by acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), inability to control major motor functions, and finally paralysis.


Survivors of distemper often exhibit lifelong aftereffects. Most commonly, distemper survivors will have those thickened pads, along with some kind of twitching or involuntary facial movements. One friend has a distemper survivor who lost her sight to the disease.




For many years, most vets simply recommended immediate euthanasia of any animal showing signs of distemper, especially if the neurological signs were present. Even now, euthanasia is still the most common course of action. WITH treatment, the disease has a mortality rate of at least 50%. Those just aren’t good odds.


Treatment for distemper is primarily supportive. In other words, the vet can treat the symptoms, provide fluids and nutrition, and keep the dog comfortable. The intent is to support the dog’s immune system and help his body to fight the disease. There is a ray of hope right here in Houston, however; a vet named Dr. Huddleston makes a serum that seems to produce good results when used on dogs in the early stages of distemper. It is not yet widely used, but many local rescue groups swear by its efficacy.


Inexplicable Denial


The reason I’m talking about distemper is that my local shelter appears to be having a serious outbreak of the disease. I have seen post after post from fosters and rescues who pulled sick dogs from MCAS, only to watch them die of distemper. I have seen far too many posts from heartbroken adopters who brought their new pets home from the shelter, only to bury them a few days later.


So imagine my surprise when an unidentified admin on the MCAS Pets In Need Facebook page posted this: “To my knowledge, there has [sic] been no confirmed distemper cases in the shelter.”


Seriously? Throughout this whole debacle, I regularly find myself wondering if the people making statements like these are lying or just that pathetically uninformed.


One rescuer of my acquaintance just lost a foster puppy who was hospitalized with distemper after being pulled from MCAS. Another pulled a young dog from MCAS after a volunteer put out a plea for help because he was losing weight rapidly and refusing to eat. Less than 48 hours later, that poor dog died of pneumonia and complications of distemper. A necropsy showed that his digestive tract was completely empty. My understanding is that until the foster pulled him, he was in an adoption kennel, which means that dozens of other animals were exposed to active distemper, both through airborne transmission and casual secondary contact.


I just got word of another dog pulled today who is showing signs of distemper.




The truth is that in a shelter situation, distemper will occasionally present. Animals come from all kinds of situations. Mostly they don’t have current vaccinations. Often they arrive in a debilitated condition. It is always entirely possible that a new arrival may already be incubating the disease.


This is why proper procedure in a shelter is so critical. Every dog should be vaccinated upon arrival. No, vaccines are not instantly effective. But if every dog is vaccinated, the shelter population is less likely to fall victim to an epidemic. In a shelter with an intake vaccination protocol, only the newest arrivals and the animals who are already sick or immunocompromised will have an elevated risk of contracting the disease.


Any dog with respiratory symptoms should immediately be moved to isolation and treated. Even if it turns out to be just a respiratory illness, we really don’t want the other animals getting it. These animals should also be watched closely for other distemper symptoms such as refusal to eat or signs of neurological issues. Proper sanitary precautions must also be taken to avoid secondary contact transmission of the disease.


No shelter can completely escape the occasional case of distemper. But any properly managed shelter can absolutely control the spread of the disease. An ongoing problem of this magnitude can only be the result of egregious and repeated human error.


I don’t believe denial is going to work.





July 5th: A Rough Day For Shelters

Most people don’t know that January 1st and July 5th are the two largest intake days for animal shelters all over the country. Why?




People leave a pet outside, the fireworks start, pet freaks out, breaks out of the yard, and the next morning the owners are out putting up signs and mumbling about they just don’t know what happened. Frightened dogs, in particular, tend to run in a blind panic until they either outrun the noise or just exhaust themselves. That blind panic means that when they calm down, they can’t find their way home. I’ve literally seen a dog in a fireworks panic run blindly into the lake and start swimming. That one was lucky, because she swam up in someone’s back yard, instead of drowning in the lake.


Other people take their pets with them to events where there will be fireworks. Don’t do that! Every year, pets pull free of their owners, jump out of vehicles, slip their collars, and run like hell. Keep your pets at home where they will be safe.


It is not enough to just leave them home. Pets who panic at the noise have been know to break out of crates, sometimes breaking their own teeth or nails. They’ve clawed and chewed holes in doors or walls. They’ve broken windows. They’ve gotten into panic driven fights with other animals with whom they normally live very comfortably.


Your pets need to be indoors, in a secure place, with the tv on to muffle the sound of your idiot neighbors blowing a month’s disposable income on the thrill of blowing up bits of colored paper. Some pets may need medication to keep them from working up into a panic. Of my own dogs, two don’t care at all, but one is utterly terrified of loud noises, so I spend the 4th of July on the couch with 78 pounds of drugged dog in my lap with a blanket over his head.


Would I love to go 4th of July parties? Maybe. I’m generally not much for parties. But even if they were my favorite thing ever, I would stay home gladly to keep my animals safe. They’re my responsibility. They depend on me to take care of them. Sadly, many people just don’t think about it or don’t care. More people think they have their pets safely confined in the yard, but come home to find them gone.


Animals will hurt themselves to escape. Then they run blindly through the night. Some will be hit by cars, some will have other accidents. Many will end up at the local shelter, in this case MCAS.


Let’s talk about all the problems that can come from your pet ending up in the shelter. First, the shelter is very, very full. Technically, it’s over capacity. Local media is currently celebrating the success of last weekend’s adoption event, but so many animals were admitted during the same time period that the net progress was only half what it’s being portrayed to be. In other words, 127 were adopted. But 80+ were admitted. So the actual net reduction of the shelter population was less than 50.


So every fireworks refugee that comes in takes up a space that another animal could have used. Bluntly, that means animals will die to make room instead of getting more time to find an adopter.


Meanwhile, while your dog is in the shelter, he may be exposed to parvo, distemper, respiratory illnesses, intestinal parasites including coccidia and giardia, and any number of other illnesses. He may be beaten up by his kennel mate. He’ll almost certainly be sick from eating unaccustomed food. If he’s there more than three days, he could be euthanized or adopted out.


Wouldn’t it be so much better just to keep your animals home and safe in the first place?


Please make the 4th of July a happy holiday for your whole family, including your pets.

Shelter Help Wanted

It has been suggested that one of the reasons the Commissioners will not take action to revoke the Care Corp contract is that they have no idea what they really need in a good shelter management team. So I thought I would offer a couple of sample job descriptions to point them in the right direction.


Shelter Manager:

The successful candidate for the position of shelter manager should have at least two years’ experience running a large open intake shelter (500 animals or more). The candidate must be able to demonstrate familiarity with Texas animal welfare laws, as well as with the best practices of both the mainstream animal shelter industry and the No Kill movement. The candidate should have at least two years’ experience managing a staff of at least 20 people. The successful applicant’s resume will include annual professional development, which should include a wide range of the following: training on shelter management, Human Resources, public relations, marketing, conflict resolution, vaccination protocols and laws, euthanasia certification, No Kill, and other professional seminars. Preference should be given to candidates with a degree in business management or specific coursework in shelter management. Excellent people skills are essential. The candidate must demonstrate a strong commitment to promoting adoption, working with rescue, and interacting with volunteers.


Volunteer Coordinator:

The volunteer coordinator candidate should have significant experience recruiting and working with a diverse population of volunteers. The coordinator will be responsible for developing and running a strong program which will include training and education of volunteers. The coordinator will report directly to the shelter manager. This position is responsible for developing a list of approved volunteer activities (subject to frequent change and updating as new ideas and projects present themselves), working with the volunteers to promote active participation in said activities, and developing procedures to ensure volunteer safety without unnecessarily restricting their activities. Heavy emphasis will be placed on recruitment of foster families for animals, as well as on volunteers to run offsite adoption events. The coordinator will make every effort to make the volunteer population feel appreciated and valued, with an eye toward volunteer retention and development of a positive working environment.


Head Veterinarian:

The head veterinarian position requires a candidate who has at least five years’ experience working in a high capacity shelter. This candidate must have a Texas veterinary license in good standing and at least two years’ experience supervising a team of other veterinarians and technicians. The ideal candidate will have excellent people skills and managerial skills, as well as a strong track record in emergency medicine and surgery. Strong diagnostic skills are a must. This candidate will also pursue regular continuing education to stay current with new techniques and pharmaceutical developments. Preference will be given to candidates who have demonstrated a strong commitment to diagnosing, treating, and saving every animal that can reasonably be saved. The head veterinarian will be expected to participate actively in treatment and surgery, as well as to supervise other veterinarians on staff. The head veterinarian is expected to model concern for the well-being of every animal in his or her care, as well as to lead a veterinary team (including technicians) that is consistently focused on the care and comfort of the animals while still providing excellent customer service.


These job descriptions are just samples of what we should expect from good candidates for these positions in our shelter. In a large high-capacity shelter, combining the position of head vet with the shelter manager job is positively irresponsible, as it leads to one person trying to do two extremely full time jobs, with the obvious result that neither will be done well. Likewise, the shelter manager should not function as the volunteer coordinator; the shelter manager has a very high stress position that requires supervising a large staff, dealing with multiple crises throughout any given day, and dealing with the public, often in less than desirable circumstances. The volunteer community needs a separate point person whom they can rely on to meet their needs and organize their efforts, and the shelter manager needs a reliable coordinator to whom those responsibilities can be delegated.


Please note that all three descriptions place major emphasis on people skills. While all three require different levels of interaction with the public, the volunteers, and the staff, what they have in common is daily contact with people in a fast-paced, stressful environment. Animal welfare people are often much better with animals than with people, but a well-run shelter cannot afford for these three positions to be filled by employees who are not socially adept and good at working with both people and animals.


We the public (aka the taxpayers) can accept nothing less from our shelters or the people running them.