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Being Chemically Balanced Is No Guarantee

A cleaning a day keeps the bugs at bay, but the question is, how much cleaning should you do—and how frequently?

A cleaning a day keeps the bugs at bay, but the question is, how much cleaning should you do—and how frequently?

Disease problems in the animal care facility can’t be controlled by magic potions. Solutions, unfortunately, are only part of the solution.

Read all the articles from the July-August 2003 issue on cleaning and disinfecting your facility:

The Product Claim Game
Navigating the world of disinfectants, one bottle at a time

Defining the Terms
Clarification on some common terms you may encounter while developing a cleaning and disease control program for your facility.

The Bleach Niche
Is the old standby, sodium hypochlorite, still the gold standard?

Great Points in the Fine Print
Learning how to glean important information from a bottle label can help you narrow your choices of available products. Here are a few tips on learning the lingo.

Don't Let the Fomites Get You Down
You may have had a hand in cross-infection in the past—without even knowing it

Resistance Is Futile If You Clean Properly
Rotation of similar products won’t make much difference in the end result, but rotating quats with bleach is still recommended

“Just basic cleaning is really as effective as anything you can do,” says Colin Parrish, a Cornell University virologist who studies parvoviruses. “It may not remove the very last particle, but I think that’s very difficult in a shelter situation anyway. ...Your main goal, I think, is to sort of reduce the viral load in the environment. So normal hygiene and cleanliness are 90 percent of the battle.”

Even those who peddle the products agree. “Picking your product is, quite frankly, the easiest part of the whole thing if somebody knows what they’re looking for,” says Chris Quinlan of Animal Health Technology. “The other part to infection control is employees—the protocol that they use to clean and disinfect, but also their eyes. They need to be taught to recognize the clinical signs of a sick animal and then isolate.”

The more people understand how germs are transmitted, the more conscientious they tend to be in the way they handle animals, apply disinfectants, and follow other recommended disease control practices. The attention to such details is critical; the range of products used by shelters that report success in their disease control measures is testament to the fact that the bug battle involves far more than what’s in the bottle. An informal survey of shelters regarding their cleaning protocols yielded as many answers as there were respondents, including among them the following:

? a humane society in Arizona that steam-cleans once a week and rotates disinfectants every three months, using ZEP Micronex, Top Performance Wintergreen, and Envirocide;
? an animal control agency in North Carolina that uses a hypochlorite product in the kennels and Ready-to-Use TB-Cide Quat in the cat area;
? a humane society in California that uses a degreaser and bleach in the dog runs and NutraQuat in the cat area;
? a private shelter in Rhode Island that uses KennelSol regularly and a degreaser and bleach only occasionally;
? and a humane society/animal control agency in Maryland that uses a quaternary ammonium product called Sentricide throughout the facility.

Probably more important than what these shelters are using, though, is how they are using it. And there’s no defined formula for disinfection that will apply to every facility and every situation. Cleaning protocols depend on many variables, including staffing levels, facility size, construction materials, animal intake numbers, and differences in disease prevalence from region to region. Depending on the conditions, some shelters “detail-clean” every day, cleaning first with a detergent and then disinfecting with bleach. Others clean and disinfect with a quaternary ammonium each day, degrease once a week, and use bleach only in the isolation or quarantine areas. Still others employ a combination of all three throughout the shelter—scrubbing with a quaternary ammonium every day and degreasing and bleaching weekly.

However you decide to detail-clean, your regular regimen should follow the following basic principles.

Help the Animals Take Cover.

What makes cleaning in the shelter so difficult is the very fact that it’s a shelter for live beings, not a building full of inanimate objects. Trying to do right by those beings includes both giving them a clean space and ensuring their comfort—and the cleaning process can make these two goals seem like competing notions. But they don’t have to be. As long as you are ensuring you have a safe spot in which to place animals while you clean, whether it’s a temporary carrier or a bank of clean, empty cages, you can minimize the stress that cleaning would otherwise present.

Your furry charges should never be in a kennel or cage while you are spraying or hosing, but there are other options. You can put animals on the other side of a double-sided kennel or cage if you’re lucky enough to have such a setup. You can use carriers for animals while you clean, but you have to designate a carrier for each animal to use throughout his stay or else disinfect between each use—a process that can be fairly labor-intensive if you do it thoroughly. (Some shelters simplify this process by using cardboard carriers, labeling them with the names of cats, and sending cats home in their own carriers when they get adopted.) Or you can clean out a few kennels and cages at a time and transfer animals from dirty kennels into clean ones—a common practice but not a particularly efficient one.

The practice of moving animals from cage to cage daily is potentially problematic in another way: it has sometimes been blamed for the spread of disease. For that reason, and because of understaffing, some shelters without much space choose to spot-clean cat cages during an animal’s stay, each day providing fresh newspapers, towels, food bowls, and litter and gently wiping down surfaces with paper towels. Thorough cleaning and disinfection is saved for later, when the cage has become dirty or when the cat is adopted, euthanized, or moved to another holding area.

In the best-case scenario, two spaces are reserved for each animal—an idea that many people tend to shy away from, fearing backlash from members of the public who won’t understand why the shelter euthanizes even when half the cages are empty. But in the grand scheme of disease control, keeping reasonably sized populations in the shelter is going to save more lives in the long term, not only making the cleaning process faster but lessening the chances for cross-contamination.

“The more cats you have in a given space, the more upper respiratory infection you have also,” says Kate Hurley, director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program. “So I think decreasing the density of cats is a very, very important tool to keep them healthy as well as to make cleaning more efficient and more humane for the cats. It’s really traumatic if you think about how much cats tend to hate getting grabbed and put in a cage and taken to the vet. And these cats are already stressed out, and imagine being grabbed every single day, packed in a carrier and stacked in a wobbly stack or out in the hall, where it’s stinky and dogs are barking, and then having your cage cleaned and then getting crammed back in it.

“It’s just really problematic for cats. And even apart from that, just getting cat density down to half the level—and having the cats be healthy and less stressed—is going to make them get adopted out faster, and ultimately allow the shelter to help just as many if not more cats and have the cats be happier in the process.”

Take Out the Trash and Soak the Implements.

Putting litter—and other soiled material—in its place is the first step in proper disinfection. The presence of organic material can reduce or negate the effectiveness of disinfectants by neutralizing its killing power or by surrounding the pathogen and preventing contact with the solution.

Food crumbs, spilled litter, newspaper liners, and towels should all be removed from cages and kennels. Hosing debris down the drain risks splattering invisible microbes on the walls and ceilings, so even feces must be removed by hand before the spraying begins.

Tricks for speeding up the cleaning process or controlling an outbreak include turning cardboard sandwich boats into food bowls and using cardboard soda flats, shirt boxes, or food trays as litter pans. Easily disposed of and easily replaced, these items just need to be large enough for a cat to move around in; no kitty likes to have to do yoga to try to do his bathroom duties.

Cafeteria-style steam table pans can also serve as litter boxes. Made of stainless steel, they are available from cafeteria supply companies or through Animal Care & Equipment Services (ACES). Because they are easy to disinfect, stainless steel food bowls are also the dish of choice; plastic dishes and litter boxes are too easily nicked by little toenails and teeth, creating secret bunkers for germs in the cracks and crevices.

A commercial dishwasher can help disinfect these items, but it won’t clean them. Dishes and pans should be scrubbed first before taking the plunge into the machine, says veterinarian Bing Dilts of San Francisco Animal Care and Control. Shelters not lucky enough to possess a dishwasher can mimic the process by turning large drums into a makeshift scrubbing and soaking system. Using one pair of drums for litter pans and another pair for reusable bowls and toys, shelter staff can first scrub items in a drum filled with a detergent/degreaser, then rinse them, and then place them in another drum full of disinfectant for ten minutes before rinsing again.

Toys and soft comfort items should be disinfectable; they can either be washed before being placed with a new animal or sent home with adopters.

Put Disposable—or Disinfectable—Tools at Your Disposal.

Sponges and rags are a microbe’s idea of heaven; they are porous and inviting to infectious agents. “Contaminated cleaning tools can be a common cause of poor results with germicides and sanitizers,” wrote Tom Bach in the October 2001 issue of Infection Control Today (“Chemical Management Involves Worker Safety and Economics”). “Clean tools not only must be free of visible soil, they must be free of bacteria.”

For general surface cleaning, Bach recommends disposable cloths or paper towels that reduce the opportunity for cross-contamination. Tools with smoother, harder surfaces, including stiff-bristled brushes, help with more heavily soiled areas and can be easily cleaned between uses.

Keeping several brushes in a bucket of diluted disinfectant allows you to scrub out one cage with the first brush; you can dip the brush back into the bucket to disinfect while you use the second brush on the second cage; and so on. Using a hose-end sprayer to apply detergents and disinfectants reduces the time it takes to spread the solution around, but you still need to scrub all surfaces, including the doors, floors, walls, resting boards, and cage ceilings.

If you spot-clean during the day or if your shelter just changes the litter boxes, liners, and food of feral cats during their holding periods, you should clean litter scoopers between boxes by using the same bucket-dipping process as described above. Otherwise, moving straight from one box to another will serve as a surefire way to spread contaminants among cats, since many pathogens are shed through feces.

Learn the Rub on How to Scrub.

The products in your chemical arsenal need to do battle with three things: dirt, germs, and grease. And no one product will take care of it all, except those that are too expensive or too unsafe. Quaternary ammoniums are good cleaners and good disinfectants, but only the pricey high-concentrate products are capable of killing or inactivating most germs a shelter has to contend with. Bleach is cheap and kills even the most resistant microorganisms like parvovirus, but it doesn’t have the surfactant properties necessary to lift dirt and residue. And degreasers cut through the filmy layers that disinfectants can’t touch.

So what is a poor kennel tech to do? Inevitably, you’ll have to use more than one product to get the job done. Because bleach is corrosive to equipment and irritating to humans and animals alike, some experts recommend reserving it for critical situations. “Bleach is a great disinfectant, but it doesn’t clean well and will eventually eat through your cages,” writes Bilts in a presentation she compiled on cleaning and disinfection. “The fumes are also harmful to employees and animals if it is used in high concentrations. This said, I don’t recommend getting rid of bleach, but using it in certain areas only: isolation wards and on cages that were contaminated with a known problem (like parvo, kennel cough, panleukopenia).”

Some shelters choose to use bleach in all areas, perhaps twice a week instead of every day. Either way, a bleach treatment must be preceded by a detergent scrubdown and a thorough rinsing, wrote Michael McCagg in the March 2003 issue of Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online: “Bleach can make some soil transparent, leading a cleaner to think he/she has actually cleaned a surface when in fact the soil remains.” If you choose not to use bleach at all, it’s critical to buy a product with high disinfection properties to use at least in the isolation areas and in areas you know have been contaminated by parvovirus or something similarly resistant. (See “The Product Claim Game.”)

“Some shelters use quats daily and then once a week degrease and bleach, and I think that would be a very reasonable protocol in a dog ward in a shelter that didn’t have a lot of parvo problems,” says Hurley.“ And then if you started having trouble with parvo, that would be when you’d want to move over to more routine use of bleach—or to a quat that has parvocidal activities.”

Even though quaternary ammonium products are often sold as one-step detergent/disinfectants, they will not adequately disinfect in the presence of a heavy soil load. Dirt and debris will turn disinfection with a quat into a two-step process. “The quats can be applied as a one-step cleaner for a very lightly soiled cage,” says Hurley, “but for a heavily soiled cage, they really need to be cleaned first and then disinfected either with a quat or a bleach.”

Degreasing on a regular schedule—whether twice a week, once a week, or once a month, depending on the conditions—will help remove the slimy films that little wet noses and sticky paws leave behind. Detergents often don’t remove these layers, which can serve as substrates for breeding microorganisms.

Give it a Good Rinse.

Some labels carry the claim that no rinsing is required, and technically that may be true in the mock testing situations set up by product researchers. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, for the sake of both people and animals. Animals may develop mouth ulcers, scrotal dermatitis, or other irritations if they lick or lie on disinfectant residue.

Rinsing is necessary for another reason: if you don’t do it, your whole disinfection process may be a wash. Not only can chemicals react with each other to create noxious fumes; certain combinations may also negate the overall effect you’re trying to achieve. Some detergent products can inactivate quaternary ammoniums and reduce the activity of bleach solutions, so it’s smart to wash away one product completely before applying another.

Quinlan provides another perspective—one from a more macroscopic level than is usually accorded to microbes. For the very reason that the invisible beasts are invisible, disinfectant users often forget they’re there. But while scrubbing brings germs to the surface, and disinfecting kills many or most of them, the dirt may cling for dear life until squirted down the drain. “People ask me all the time, ‘Does your product need to be rinsed away?’ And I tell them, ‘Well, no, it doesn’t need to be rinsed away, but it’s designed to be rinsed away—that’s part of the physical action of the dirt and germs,’ ” says Quinlan. “If the germs were as big as cockroaches, they wouldn’t be asking me.”

Virologist Colin Parrish of Cornell University agrees.“My attitude, frankly, is that I think that hot water and plenty of it is probably most effective—[as well as] detergent,” he says, adding that vigorous cleaning can help wash away parvovirus. “Once it goes down the drain, then it’s not a concern for you.”

Some shelters might prefer not to use water that is steaming hot, for fear of burning staff or animals. But as long as animals are moved away from areas that are being cleaned and staff are properly equipped with protective gear, a weekly or monthly steam-clean can’t hurt and may help dislodge the hardiest remaining bugs from their hiding places.

Experts on the HSUS Animal Services Consultation (ASC) team sometimes recommend that shelters consider purchasing an electric hot-water pressure-washing system, which can hasten cleaning as well as reduce filmy buildup on cage surfaces. But there’s still no substitute for elbow grease. “Pressure washers do not ... eliminate the need for the weekly degreasing of cage surfaces,” wrote ASC team members in a recent report. “All degreasing agents should be used in conjunction with some type of mechanical action, either scrubbing or pressure washing.”

Whatever system you use, you should always ensure housing areas are dry before putting animals back into their clean quarters.


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