Vaccinations (What Makes a Good Shelter, Part 3 of Many)

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?

Transparency (What Makes A Good Shelter? Part 2 of Many)

Animal shelters come in a variety of models. Some are funded by local government agencies. Some are registered 501c3 nonprofit organizations. Some are privately owned.


Even within those models, there are a multitude of management arrangements. Let’s take a look at taxpayer funded shelters today. Some shelters fall directly under the control of local law enforcement; regular police officers are charged with the care of any animals as extra duty. This is only possible in very small jurisdictions, and it’s just not a good plan.


More commonly, the town or county or administrative area will create a department of Animal Control. That agency is responsible for catching loose or dangerous animals, holding stray animals for a specific minimum period of time, providing appropriate care for the animals in their custody, and hopefully, for maintaining a strong adoption, foster, and rescue program to place animals in need of homes.


Ideally, the shelter will hire trained animal control officers, veterinary technicians, kennel staff, and support staff. Ideally, there will be a highly qualified shelter manager to oversee the whole operation. Ideally, the governing agency will provide a budget adequate to the size of the task, and said budget will increase with population expansion and demand.


Ideally doesn’t happen very often.


All too often, local government agencies hire any untrained warm body who is willing to work for low pay in crappy conditions. Local judges sentence juvenile offenders, vandals, minor first time offenders, and even drunk drivers to do community service in shelters. Free labor is good – unless they don’t do the job well or endanger the animals. Cheap unskilled labor is often dangerous to the animals and the people. Unskilled employees end up getting bitten or injured, or making mistakes that put the animals at risk.


Some local governments choose a different option. They allow privately held management companies to bid for a contract to run the shelter. In theory, this can be a great deal for both the management company and the government agency. The management company handles the mountains of paperwork and minutiae in exchange for a fee, and the government agency simply allocates the budget and saves countless man hours for their elected officials. The management company has the time and resources to train their personnel properly, and that burden is thus lifted from the governing agency.


Want to know the biggest problem with this concept?


Any public institution is required to maintain a certain amount of transparency and accountability. A privately held management company…not so much. So now we have a public institution, which should be completely transparent, being managed by a private enterprise, which is not held to that standard.


This is a recipe for corruption.


Taxpayers have a legal and moral right to know exactly how the funds set aside for the animal shelter are allocated. When a government agency runs a shelter, that agency is required to itemize its budget. Line items will show how much goes for every possible expense: facilities maintenance, utilities, insurance, employee salaries, veterinary care, food for the animals, and any other expenses. The interested taxpayer can actually request a copy of that itemized budget and study where every dollar of the budget goes. Financial accountability becomes very important.


Nonprofit groups operate under similar restrictions. As nonprofits, they are subject to open records requests as well as to audits by the IRS. They too are required by law to account for every penny they spend. In fact, the rules for nonprofits are quite strict because they are designed to protect donors who want to know that the money they donate is going where they want it to go.


For profit management groups have no such legal mandate. They are NOT legally required to make their itemized budget available to the public. No legal safeguards exist to prevent the CEO of a for profit company from doing the contractual minimum and pocketing the rest of the budget. Yes, a wise or careful government agency could include such safeguards in the written contract. (Wise government agency? Okay, I’m being hypothetical. But still.) Realistically, it’s a huge loophole that allows a for profit company to loot the hell out of a taxpayer funded budget at the expense of the animals that budget is meant to serve.


Does this mean that all for profit management companies are bad or unethical? Of course not. But it certainly means that any for profit management company needs to be held – both by contract and by public demand – to a very high standard of transparency and ethical behavior.


Not only are we talking about our tax dollars, we’re talking about the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable population. Animals don’t vote. Animals don’t write letters or run email campaigns. Animals depend on us to be their voice, to hold their caretakers and custodians accountable for their well-being.


At an absolute minimum, the following information should be made available to the public in detail each month, and regularly audited by an independent third party:

  1. The total budget supplied by the taxpayers.
  2. Where every single dollar is spent. I want to see an itemized list of ALL expenses and expenditures.
  3. How any donated goods, services, and funds are used. This becomes especially important to the for profit model, since every donation frees up funds which can be added to the profit margin.
  4. The exact condition and outcome of every animal to enter the shelter. Did the animal come in healthy? Sick? Injured? Did the animal go to foster, rescue, or a home? Was the animal treated by a veterinarian? Who paid for it? How much? Is the animal still alive? If not, why not?
  5. Verifiable documentation of standard of care. I want to see records proving that all animals are vaccinated on intake. I want to see proof that any sick or injured animals receive appropriate and timely veterinary care. I want to know what the ratio of animals to direct care employees is, so that I know there are enough employees to reasonably care for the population.


I’m certain there is much more that should be included in the transparency requirements. But I know that I would have much greater confidence in any management team willing and able to provide this documentation consistently.


Why should we accept less? The animals deserve transparency, and so do we.


My challenge to my readers: find out how easily these five pieces of information can be obtained from your local shelter. (Hint: There’s this neat thing called an open records request…)

What Makes a Good Shelter? (Part 1 of Many)

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what makes a good shelter. Most animal welfare volunteers start out thinking that a no kill shelter is the holy grail. If they don’t kill animals, they must be awesome, right? I thought so once too. But it just isn’t that simple.


Fact: Not every animal that walks into a shelter will walk out alive.


Let’s look at reasons an animal might not survive a shelter.


Some reasons make sense:

Terminal illness

Irreparable injury

Extreme aggression

Completely feral animals


Some are less comprehensible:

Lack of space

Treatable illness or injury that the shelter doesn’t have the resources to treat

Illness or injury acquired in the shelter

Moderate behavioral problems


Some are downright evil:

Breed restrictions

Age restrictions

Arbitrary personal preferences of employees charged with choosing who lives

Arbitrary rules that force employees to euthanize after a set number of days, regardless of space, health, and adoptability

Refusal to work with rescues or fosters

Refusal to institute an adoption program


The average, reasonably well-informed civilian knows these problems exist. But that same civilian also tends to casually glom onto the idea that a no kill shelter can magically solve all these problems, without much thought given to HOW a shelter becomes no kill.


All too often, some well-intentioned but sadly uninformed person finds himself in a position of authority, and uses that platform to “magically” make a facility no kill, without any transitional work or contingency plans. And then what happens?


Intake continues. Animals keep coming. Kennels get crowded. Overcrowded kennels create volatile situations in which animals turn on each other. Weaker animals don’t get enough to eat because their kennel mates take their food. Animals get injured or even killed in their own kennels.


Sounds like human prison, doesn’t it?


But there’s more. Those same overcrowded conditions encourage and facilitate disease transmission. Animals that come in sick spread their germs, because there is no room to isolate them. Animals that come in reasonably healthy get sick. Next thing you know, employees are talking about an “outbreak.” And outbreaks often end in mass euthanasia.


A good shelter knows that some animals won’t make it. A good shelter fights HARD to save every animal they possibly can, through adoption, foster, rescue, special events, and constant networking. A good shelter understands the importance of vet care, vaccinations upon intake, isolation of contagious animals, proper feeding, and proper sanitation. A good shelter protects the animals by not overcrowding the kennels.


In an ideal world, a good shelter would be able to maintain appropriate numbers by arranging enough foster, adoptive, or rescue placements to keep open spaces in their kennels. In that same ideal world, animals would get vaccinated and treated for fleas and ticks the moment they walk into the shelter. Animals would go to isolation rooms if they showed the slightest sign of potentially contagious illness. The shelter would have experienced veterinarians on staff with the equipment and supplies to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. Employees and volunteers would have the knowledge and ability to work with animals who needed some socialization or behavior modification. And every animal would eventually find a forever home.


We don’t live in an ideal world.


In this less than ideal world, I’ve been getting more updates about the ongoing train wreck at MCAS. The “new guy” is apparently anti euthanasia. In theory, that sounds great. To my knowledge, he’s never declared the shelter no kill, but his management practices sure look a lot like the novice no kill model. The new guy is also doing a piss poor job of networking with rescues, promoting adoptions, and working with volunteers. I personally know of fosters and rescues turned away…simply because they asked questions or were perceived as belonging to the enemy camp.


Meanwhile, the kennels are so full that people witnessed a fight between FOUR dogs in ONE kennel. A young volunteer who tried to break it up posted pics of her scratched up arms to Facebook, which legally marked those animals as “bite cases” because the skin was broken.


Overcrowding and lax sanitation and vaccination protocols have produced an apparent parvo outbreak, resulting in an entire room being “quarantined” (by the medically ridiculous expedient of hanging a sheet over the doorway). Multiple puppies have been diagnosed with parvo after going to their new homes; at least one was treated at the expense of the adopters, and at least two were returned to the shelter, during sick clinic, in a room full of pets who were thus all exposed to the parvo pups. Even better, two parvo pups were released to foster care, and an employee had to post a request to social media that the fosters identify themselves, because no one wrote down who took them.


And today, Dr. Ross posted a letter to the volunteers on social media, in which he says that “The transition of new ownership at CARE has not been as smooth and as seamless as I envisioned.”


No kidding.

Remember what you’re fighting for.

I’m sure my readers have noticed that I am deeply focused on the fight to save MCAS from its new management. I sincerely hope that in the near future, that fight will stop being necessary. In the meanwhile, I’d like you to contemplate something for just a moment. We see war every time we turn on the news. War is ugly, and dangerous, and involves tremendous death and destruction. So why do people go to war?


If you’re the good guys, you go to war to fight for what you believe is right. Or to fight against what you believe is wrong.


To win a war, you have to be willing to sustain casualties and suffer pain while making sure the other side sustains greater losses and suffers greater pain. You win the war when the other side can no longer hold their position because their losses have become unsustainable.


Ever notice the problem with this concept? It’s usually the noncombatants who suffer the greatest losses. In human wars, it’s the civilians. In this war for the soul of MCAS, it’s the employees, the volunteers, and especially the animals who are suffering the collateral damage.


Dedicated volunteers have been blocked from fostering. Good employees have been fired. Others have quit rather than participate in the toxic environment created by the “new management.” Deliberate attacks have been made against the credibility, character, and personal histories of shelter volunteers who oppose the new regime. Friendships and working relationships have been destroyed, and the level of mutual distrust has risen to Balkan proportions.


And now the latest salvo from the enemy camp…


The enemy is upset because the rebel alliance has obtained intel about their activities and aired their dirty laundry for all of the vast Facebook universe to see.


Here’s what appears to have happened. A good volunteer offered to foster a litter of mangy puppies. New management refused, because she is one of the rebels. Then the puppies sort of…disappeared. It appears that numerous “inaccuracies” were perpetuated by the new management every time anyone asked about the whereabouts of those puppies.


And then…oops! Someone (I wish I knew who, because I’d buy them dinner) obtained the records from the shelter computer of what actually happened to those puppies. Let’s just say it wasn’t good.


The shelter management did not show any shame or embarrassment over being caught with their collective pants down. Instead, they opted for the best defense is a good offense. They punished the whole community by removing all volunteer access to the online databases. Why does this matter? Without that access, the online team cannot answer inquiries about adoptable animals. They cannot publicize animals who are in particular need of rescue or foster. It cuts off the single most effective method of networking animals to get them safely out of the shelter. Result: animals die.


The enemy (aka “new management”) is holding those animals hostage in an attempt to break the will of the rebellious volunteer community. Their actions are remarkably parallel to an enemy force threatening to sacrifice prisoners if the other side doesn’t give in to their demands. Their supporters spew propaganda about how the rebel volunteers are “just hurting the animals.” About how we’d go along with their program if we “really cared about the animals.” And then there are the reminders in online forums for volunteers about how any posts dissenting, complaining, questioning, (or in the words of one particularly aggressive member of the other team, “bitching and moaning”) will not be allowed.


Let’s call their behavior what it is.


Terrorism: Do what they want, and they might let you save some of the animals they’re holding hostage. Fight them, and animals die.

Censorship: They control what you do, what you say, and what you post online. Only post comments they like, or they’ll delete them and ban you. And animals die.

Authoritarianism: They decide who volunteers. They decide what animals are “eligible” for foster. Submit willingly, or they’ll ban you. And animals die.


My dear volunteers, if the enemy kills animals, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. The hard, ugly truth is this: We have to win this war in order to save more animals longterm than we ever could through immediate surrender and compliance.


Remember what you’re fighting for.

Rescue 101 for Shelters (aka Rescue Is Your Friend)

Well, Care Corp strikes again. This time, both of the shelters under their “management” have managed to offend good rescue groups in a variety of ways. Since clearly they don’t have a good grasp of how to treat rescue groups, I’m going to offer some suggestions on how to develop a good relationship with rescue. I’m also going to explain why it matters, because they don’t seem to get that either.


How to cultivate rescue groups:

Learn what kind of animals that group wants. Each group develops a following that is looking for a particular animal profile. Asking them to take an animal that doesn’t fit their profile is asking them to take on an animal that will be harder for them to place.


Learn who to call for what. Each rescue has someone (or more than one someone) authorized to make intake decisions. Let’s say you’re calling an all breed group that takes both dogs and cats. Don’t call their cat person looking to place a large dog. You need to know who to call for small dogs, large dogs, purebred dogs, mixed breed dogs, dogs with minor medical issues, dogs with major medical issues, dogs with behavioral problems, puppies, senior dogs, bonded pairs, unsocialized dogs, ad infinitum. Developing relationships with the right people for every possible scenario is vital.


Act fast. Got a dog that you know fits a particular rescue’s demographic? Call them immediately. Do NOT wait around for a week to see if a shelter foster wants the dog. Do NOT let the dog sit around the shelter to see if maybe you can get him adopted out. First, rescues love it when they can get a dog before he has spent time in the main kennels of a shelter. Why? Less exposure to diseases. No matter how clean the shelter, the constant influx of animals from unknown backgrounds means that disease exposure is inevitable. The faster the dog gets out, the less likely he is to get sick. Second, if you have an animal that a rescue will take, get him out! It frees up kennel space for another animal. And for God’s sake never let a sick or injured animal wait.


Respect your rescue contacts. Remember that rescues are run by volunteers, who use their own time and money to take care of these animals. They may have to take off work, drive long distances, line up transport volunteers and vet appointments, find foster homes, raise money for treatment, and make a host of other arrangements. So it’s never a good idea to suddenly tell them that the animal is no longer available, especially after they’ve already made those arrangements or driven to pick the animal up. Rescues don’t have to work with your shelter. There are animals in need everywhere. Rescues are helping you by moving animals out of your shelter and off your books as live releases. Help them by being courteous and responsible.


Communicate! Answer your phone. Answer your email. Answer your smoke signals. Whatever it takes. Again, rescuers are volunteers who are usually working around jobs and other responsibilities. If you want them to pull animals from your shelter, then reply to their messages promptly. Text, email, phone, send a carrier pigeon. If you wait around, that rescue with one foster placement open may find another dog to give it to, and you lose out. And while you’re communicating, be honest with them about the animal. Tell them every single thing you know (except where to find the previous owners, if any). If you know something about the animal’s health or behavior and don’t communicate it, you are putting the other animals and possibly the people in the rescue at risk.


All of this would seem to be basic common sense, but recent happenings at the two local shelters under Care Corp management suggest that perhaps common sense is not so common. I’ve heard tales of shelter employees being rude, rescue volunteers being turned away by the same shelter that approved transport arrangements, designated networking employees refusing to answer messages, breed rescues getting calls to ask them to take a dog who’s been there for days and then discovering more of the same breed when they get to the shelter, rescues being interrogated about why they will or will not take a particular animal…the list goes on and on.


It should be such a simple equation. Every animal that goes to rescue equals an open kennel space in the shelter and vet bills that get paid by the rescue instead of the shelter. Rescues also have the ability to work individually with their animals and adopters to ensure the best possible placement for the animal. If your objective as a shelter is maximum live release outcomes, then you should be bending over backwards to accommodate rescue volunteers. Rescues are a valuable, crucial link in the life saving chain. Be the shelter they want to work with.