“What is the best thing we can do to protect the animals in our care from infectious diseases?”
It’s a question commonly asked of the ASPCA’s Shelter Medicine Services, and it’s a good one! We all want to do the best we can for the animals in our care, and that includes minimizing the risk that they become ill. It would be great if there were a magic bullet out there—something that we shelter vets could say, “Just do this.” While that unfortunately is not the case, the good news is that there are a number of key tools in our tool box that we can rely on to greatly minimize the risk of infectious diseases in shelters.
"Our efforts don’t have to be perfect to have a big impact, and there are a lots of things that we can do to minimize exposure and reduce the dose the animals are exposed to."
Broadly speaking, I think of the various preventive strategies we have available to us as falling into two big buckets.
Plan A: Prevent exposure to the organisms that cause disease
Plan B: Strengthen the animals’ ability to resist infection if exposure occurs
Notice the great big bold “AND” there? Although I named them Plan A and Plan B, we should be implementing the plans simultaneously. This is critical in giving ourselves a bit of a built-in safety net, because the reality is, despite our best efforts, we can’t eliminate all disease exposure that might occur… and we don’t want to be scrambling to try to put Plan B into effect after the need arises!
Preventing exposure may sound like a daunting task, one that might not even be worth trying to tackle. Our efforts don’t have to be perfect to have a big impact, and there are lots of things that we can do to minimize exposure and reduce the dose the animals are exposed to. This is critical, as the dose an animal is exposed to can influence whether or not he or she becomes sick and, if they do become sick, how severe their symptoms are and how long the illness lasts for.
Your Guide to Plan A
Some of the strategies (many of which overlap) for minimizing exposure include:
- Avoiding overcrowding—operating within the organization’s capacity for care
- Reducing length of stay
- Excellent sanitation procedures
- Fomite control
- Using personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Hand hygiene protocols
- Strong biosecurity protocols, including attention to traffic patterns within the facility, staff assignments and order of sanitation and animal care
- Appropriate use of animal housing
- Segregating animal populations
Many of these strategies are foundational elements of our animal care operations, and their importance should not be underestimated. Constantly reviewing SOPs—both as they are written and as they are carried out by staff and volunteers—is invaluable in helping ensure our efforts are as impactful as they can be in keeping the animals healthy. However, it is a virtual certainty that no matter how exemplary, our efforts under Plan A will sometimes fail us for a variety of reasons. And that is why working on Plan B strategies at the same time is so critical.
Your Guide to Plan B
Strategies that strengthen the animals’ ability to resist infection include:
- Excellent animal husbandry and care
- Adequate nutrition
- Treating concurrent medical conditions
- Reducing stress
Which tools are you currently using? Which ones might you want to add to your tool box or consider upgrading to a ‘newer model’?
Stay tuned to this space for more, as I’ll be digging in to the details on some of these strategies in future blog posts.
Stephanie Janeczko, DVM, MS, DABVP, CAWA
ASPCA Senior Director, Shelter Medical Program
Dr. Stephanie Janeczko is board certified in canine and feline practice through the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, and currently serves on the boards of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians and the New York State Animal Protection Federation. Dr. Janeczko has a particular interest in infectious disease as well as in the welfare of cats.
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