Strategies for Management of Infectious Diseases in a Shelter

Three Aims Of Infection Control Animals housed in shelters have an increased risk to either acquire or transmit infectious diseases. Some ...

Three Aims Of Infection Control

Animals housed in shelters have an increased risk to either acquire or transmit infectious diseases. Some animals are already sick, injured, stressed, parasitized or otherwise immunocompromised. Without a systematic approach to infectious disease control, shelters risk creating situations that can ultimately lead to introduction and spread of infectious diseases. Infectious disease control in the shelter prioritizes the utilization of measures that prevent and manage infectious diseases in individual animals as well as steps to ensure that the health and welfare of the entire population is also protected. Infectious disease control programs should revolve around three main aims: to minimize any factors that may lead to increased host susceptibility; to optimize every individual shelter animal’s ability to resist disease; and to simultaneously decrease likelihood of exposure to the infectious pathogens that cause disease. Although this appears quite simple, there are many details that must be attended to and understood in order for a shelter to successfully achieve these basic goals.
Strategies for Management of Infectious Diseases in a Shelter

1. Host Susceptibility

Animals entering shelters inherently have an increased risk for developing and/or transmitting infectious diseases. Regardless of the quality of a shelter’s medical program, conditions where animals of different ages, backgrounds, stress levels, and health conditions come together naturally create situations where infectious diseases will occur. Furthermore, limited serologic studies indicate that a significant percentage of dogs and cats entering shelters have not received the benefit of prior vaccination or natural exposure to vaccine-preventable diseases. Vulnerability must therefore always be assumed and actively countered.
Shelters also must develop ways to raise awareness of those individuals who may have increased susceptibility that is not alterable. This includes animals who are immunocompromised due to disease or medical treatment, who are being treated with antimicrobial drugs, have open wounds, or who are pregnant or pediatric. Good communication between veterinary personnel, management, staff, volunteers, and the public is important to protect these animals as well as those who are providing care for them while they are at the shelter.
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2. Optimizing Shelter Animals’ Ability to Resist Diseases

Provision of preventative healthcare measures like vaccination and parasite treatment on arrival are the key tools available to shelters that actively improve animals’ ability to resist diseases. While vaccines are never a guarantee against infection, and protocols must be tailored for a given operation by a consulting veterinarian, panels of experts agree that immediately vaccinating all animals as they enter a facility, including those pregnant and mildly ill, with those vaccines considered to be core is one of the mainstays of shelter infection control, and should be every facility’s priority.
Other measures that increase resistance, such as probiotic and nutraceutical administration, have not been studied extensively in shelter environments but may prove to be important tools.

3. Decreasing Exposure to Pathogens in the Shelter

There are three requirements for diseases to spread and the basic cycle of infectious diseases to perpetuate in any setting. There must be (1) a source of infection sufficient to cause disease (pathogen); (2) a susceptible host; and (3) a mode of transmission of the infection to another host for disease to continue. In most shelters, the population of animals is constantly fluctuating and it is difficult, if not impossible, to control the source and host aspects of this cycle. The focus of infection control for healthcare settings is typically on breaking the cycle of transmission, which means that for shelters, decreasing exposure to pathogens should receive the most emphasis in infection control.
Personal protective equipment, though often effectively used in the shelter, is probably the least desirable way to decrease exposure to infectious disease because it is only acting as a temporary physical barrier. There is obviously greater opportunity for plans to reduce exposure in some areas than in others. Each facility must determine how to plan in a way that has the greatest potential impact when implemented.

 Facility Design

There are factors related to reducing transmission of diseases that are or can be built into a facility’s design. This is an area where flexibility is limited once a building is established. For this reason, it is valuable anytime a new animal shelter facility is being planned or an older building undergoes renovations to seek input from an experienced shelter medical expert. Healthy animals should not be housed or handled with animals who have clinical signs of illness.

Administrative Measures

Measures that require oversight, implementation, and compliance fall into this category. As important as it is to have plans for controlling diseases, it is equally important that established protocols are properly communicated and followed. Administrative precautions include protocols for hand hygiene, for monitoring and removing ill animals from the population, for managing animals and people during an infectious disease outbreak, and protocols for caring for animals with zoonotic infections. Any inanimate object with frequent animal contact should be readily sanitized between uses, or used and then disposed of.

Personal Protective Equipment

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is a part of infection control in the shelter setting. Since PPE only serves as a barrier to pathogens rather than actively eliminating pathogens from the environment etc., it should not be the only precaution utilized. During animal handling, especially when many animals are handled quickly and in succession (e.g., when cleaning), PPE can reduce opportunity for indirect disease transmission. The use of disposable gloves, disposable or routinely laundered gowns, and protective footwear should be encouraged in the shelter.


In summary, animals entering shelters are a population that are at high risk for developing infectious diseases for a variety of unpreventable reasons. Many animals who appear healthy may actually be incubating disease that can soon affect other animals and even people. Proper forethought must be given to an infection-control plan to prevent the very shelters that are striving to rehabilitate animals from becoming unhealthy havens themselves. Although considerable time may be invested in developing a comprehensive plan for infectious disease control, the real value of any plan lies in how a shelter collects, interprets, and then uses data reflecting outcomes of the plan. Ideally, one day data will guide all shelter infection-control decisions. Until then, control of diseases in the shelter involves assessing contributing factors, recognizing those that are outside the realm of recognition or intervention, and concentrating resources on areas that can be measured and modified. Ultimately, learning to reduce infectious diseases in an animal shelter will result in more healthy animals finding lifelong homes.




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Dr Lobby | Strategies for Management of Infectious Diseases in a Shelter
Strategies for Management of Infectious Diseases in a Shelter
Dr Lobby |
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