As the world tries to (prematurely) transition back to some semblance of normalcy (or at least what used to be “normal”), it’s a challenge to figure out what changes to make, and when. There will never be agreement between everybody. Some want full reversion to “normal” now, some want third-wave-level restrictions until further notice… like most things, there’s presumably a sweet spot in the middle.

I won’t try to address that particularly contentious area (I get enough hate mail as it is). Instead I’ll stick to a discussion about animal shelters, based on some talks I’ve given lately and requests for information, as shelter personnel and management struggle with what to do.

Some people might think “Why do shelters in particular warrant discussion? Animals shelters can be treated like any retail operation since they have staff, members of the public who come into the building, and they don’t provide care for high risk (human) individuals.

That’s all true.  But…

Animal shelters are an essential service, and impacts to that essential service can be harmful in more ways than one.  When thinking about control of SARS-CoV-2 in an animal shelter, there are 4 main issues to consider:

  • Preventing infection of animals (from people or other animals)
  • Preventing infection of people FROM animals
  • Preventing infection of visitors/adopters
  • Preventing infection of staff

AND there is one more important goal that also needs to be remembered:

  • Protection of the shelter itself and its operations.

Preventing infection of animals

Human-to-dog/cat transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is common, but rarely does it cause a significant problem for the dog/cat. So, while we’d like to minimize such transmission and we should take basic precautions to reduce transmission, the overall impact of infection in animals on the animals themselves is probably very limited and not a driving factor.

Preventing infection of people FROM animals

The risk of dog/cat-to-human transmission is low but not zero. This risk has not been well documented, even though it presumably it occurs, but we need to put it into context. It’s more of a concern when there’s less risk of human-to-human transmission. When there’s rampant community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between people, the potential impact of animal-to-human transmission is limited. An animal shelter worker is much more likely to get infected outside of the shelter, even if there are infected animals in the shelter.

Preventing infection of visitors/adopters

The relative risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission posed by adopted animals is really low, and, as noted above, if an adopter has abundant risk of exposure from people, the added risk from the animal is minimal. If someone is taking strict measures to isolate from people, the relative risk from the animal goes up a bit. We focus mostly on risk from animals from known COVID-19-positive households, since the incidence of active infection in dogs and cats coming into shelters without a history of recent exposure to an infected person is very low. The main risk to adopters (in terms of the adoption process) is human-to-human contact, and shelters can take measures to limit that (e.g. do as much interaction remotely/virtually as possible) and mitigate risk from required visits (e.g. ventilation, masks, distancing, making sure sick people don’t come in).

Preventing infection of staff (human-to-human)

This is the big one. Staff can be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 by other staff and by visitors. The more COVID-19 there is in the community, the greater the risk.  That’s the same for any other workplace where staff and customers mingle, and we know outbreaks occurs in those settings. The impact is the issue. We can’t shift animal care to remote for a couple of weeks while an outbreak among staff is underway. People need to attend to the animals. Staffing issues are a major concern in a wide range of industries, but many of those can handle things through shifting to remote activities or pausing some activities.  Shelters can’t.

The more people who get sick in a shelter, the more animal care can be compromised.

  • That can lead to suboptimal general care and impacts on preventive medicine or veterinary care for animals in the shelter.
  • It can probably increase the risk of outbreaks of other diseases in the animals through reduced monitoring and infection prevention practices.
  • It can also lead to pausing or slowing adoptions if staff can’t maintain those operations. That creates more risk and cost for the shelter, and also causes capacity issues.
  • Severe staffing shortages could also lead to an inability to take in new animals, which could lead to abandonment or euthanasia of animals.

Since shelters often have many personnel, including the large number of volunteers that are often involved, the odds of someone coming into the shelter with COVID-19 are high. If lots of people are coming in (especially in an unstructured manner) to look at animals, the risk goes up even more.

What do we do to balance being proactive and practical, reducing disease risk while maintaining as much normalcy as possible in shelter operations?

Good question.  To be honest, we’re making it up as we go (because we have to), and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

However, there are some basic practices and concepts that certainly apply and need to be considered carefully in any situation:

  • Maximize vaccination of staff (and that means 3 doses, not 2).
  • Maintain basic non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masks.
  • Monitor and improve ventilation.
  • Continue to have a strict “if you’re sick, stay home” policy.

Managing visitors/adopters is also important, including measures such as:

  • Minimize the number of visitors in the shelter.  Do as much remotely as possible. Discussions about animals and adoption protocols can be done online or by phone.
  • Minimize the number of people in the shelter in general or in any specific area of the shelter at one time.  Keep access to the shelter by appointment only, so that there are no crowded periods. Keep people spaced out
  • Maximize the use of outdoor spaces for interviews and animal visits.
  • Require visitors to wear masks.

Some adopters won’t like it, but it’s a case of “your facility, your rules.” If someone won’t use these very basic precautions (during a pandemic that’s still in full swing), it may be a red flag about how well they will follow any other requirements associated with adoption as well.