In the past two months, we have seen unprecedented global changes to the way we move, work and interact due to the COVID-19 crisis. With new information arriving every day about the implications of coronavirus for companion animals, animal welfare organizations have had to adapt their operations dramatically.
Thankfully, animal shelters and rescue organizations have long demonstrated their unique ability to adapt quickly and operate in the face of considerable adversity. Knowledge of infection control and isolation procedures is inherent in the industry, and experienced partners have responded promptly.
We now know that dogs, cats and ferrets can become infected with the COVID-19 virus. So far, dogs appear to be dead-end hosts. They do not appear to become sick, or to spread the virus to other dogs or humans. Cats and ferrets can show signs of illness and may be able to spread the virus to others of their own species. So far, there has been no evidence to suggest that companion animals can spread the virus to humans. Despite this, pet owners and shelter personnel must exercise caution in how they house and handle animals.
Knowing that everyone is safest at home, shelters have reached out to their communities and have received an astounding response. Foster families have welcomed many pets into their homes, keeping the shelters as empty as possible. This has allowed shelters to reduce the necessary numbers of staff and volunteers within facilities. It has also cleared space to allow for isolation of new admissions and sick animals.
As more humans become impacted by the coronavirus, shelters anticipate an influx of homeless pets. Hospitalization of solo care-takers, financial concerns, as well as fear and misinformation are expected to increase the number of pet surrenders and abandonments. Pets with unknown histories, as well as those who may be contaminated with the virus, will have to be temporarily separated from the general population. Intake procedures have been altered to reduce the potential transmission among and between species. Surveillance for signs of illness upon intake has been enhanced, and quarantine of new admits has been extended and improved. Movement of animals between shelters and regions has been paused.
Shelter staff are working within their communities to educate pet owners about safe handling and husbandry of their pets. Education focuses on the World Organization for Animal Health’s declaration that there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals that may compromise their welfare, such as harming them or abandoning them based on unfounded fears over COVID-19. The social and emotional benefits of keeping pets under the same roofs as their owners wherever possible, are nearly as important as the biosecurity benefits that we see from the same co-isolation. When no other alternatives are available, temporary housing and care strategies are being established to help care for the pets of hospitalized humans.
Within shelters, non-urgent activities have been put on hold to reduce human movement, and conserve resources. Many animal welfare advocates are concerned about how halted sterilization and vaccination programs may impact population control efforts. In response, many public and private partners have begun planning for “catch-up” clinics when normal operations can resume. Strategies for animal welfare recovery efforts are already being constructed, with emphasis on owner support, re-homing and surgical sterilization.
For further information on how animal welfare organizations are responding to this crisis, or for direction on how companion animals should be handled at this time, you can visit:
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association
The Worms and Germs Blog
The Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program (University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine)
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