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Sick building syndrome?

Quick tips for improved animal health in a less-than-ideal facility

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2016

Get (and keep) them outta there: If you’ve got a building that makes animals sick, it makes sense to focus more energy on intervention and pet retention programs that help people keep and care for their pets. Beyond that, fast-track your intake and adoptions, use return-to-field programs for community cats and maximize your foster care programs so that animals don’t stay in the building any longer than they have to.

Don’t wait—vaccinate: In shelter environments, animals are always in a race between developing immunity from vaccination and developing the disease from exposure to infectious agents. Vaccination immediately upon entry is the best practice and can provide significant protection for the majority of dogs and cats. In most cases, immunity begins developing within hours of vaccination.

Give them space: Consult the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters. Crowding is dangerous and stressful for animals and will overtax an outdated building quickly, and some older cage units are really too small to hold even single animals comfortably. Look into expanding the amount of space animals have by retrofitting cramped kennels and cages.

Reduce stress: For cats, sound is a huge stressor. Keep them out of auditory range of dogs; many cats are profoundly stressed by the sound of barking. Try to reduce cats’ exposure to other sources of noise whenever possible. Moving the cat housing away from the kennels, retrofitting the cat area with sound-muffling barriers and playing soft music at a low level to drown out scary noises may all be helpful. Use spot-cleaning techniques, which allow you to clean around kitties without relocating them (and stressing them out).

Increase enrichment: Toys, exercise and bedding for dogs, and toys, bedding and hiding boxes for cats are not optional extras—they’re critical mental stimulators that help animals cope with the stress and boredom of shelter life, which in turn helps keep them physically healthy. Try to get your dogs out for exercise and fresh air every day; structured playgroups can provide a good lift for their spirits . Curtains on the bottom half of the runs of dogs who are particularly reactive to the sight of their neighbors can also help with stress, and staff and visitors can provide treats to dogs so they learn those people are their buddies!

Fix what you got: You may not be able to build the Taj Mahal any time soon, but you can do some work to improve the areas where your animals now live. For cats, this may include creating portals between cages to provide them double the space, developing colony or paired housing for longer term residents, or constructing enclosures that allow them controlled access to the outdoors. For dogs, outdoor spaces where they can rotate in and out regularly, and spots where they can have some quiet time away from the kennels can help prevent stress and the development of “kennel crazies.”

Knowing is half the battle; the other half is speed: Staff should be doing daily rounds to spot sick animals and isolate and treat them immediately when illness is identified. Predetermined medical protocols should be part of your written standard operating procedures, and staff should know the symptoms of common diseases, how those diseases are transmitted and what they should do if they suspect an animal has an infectious illness.

Read the full story about disease control in an older building.

About the Author

M. Carrie Allan is the senior editorial director at The Humane Society of the United States, served as editor of Animal Sheltering magazine for nearly a decade, and has focused on telling the stories of the animal protection movement for even longer. She holds a master’s degree in English and writing and has won awards for her journalism, fiction and poetry, including recognition from the Dog Writer’s Association of American, the Cat Writer’s Association, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation (where she was a finalist for the work she does in her side-gig, writing about booze and cocktails for the Washington Post). If you think there’s a connection between her longtime commitment to animal welfare work and her interest in a good drink . . . well, aren’t you the smart one?