PITTSBURGH, LONDON––Alerts to the risk that animal shelters, shelterless rescues, and adoption transport may spread rabies came simultaneously in December 2014 from no-kill organizations on both sides of the Atlantic.
“He was a kitten. He came in at four weeks old,” Washington Area Humane Society shelter manager Laurelle Dicks told Mary Robb Jackson of KDKA-TV, CBS Pittsburgh.
Elaborated Jackson, “She was referring to a cat named Chance who was brought to the Washington Area Humane Society in May 2014. Found along a road by a volunteer, at the time the kitten had a couple of puncture wounds on his head, but otherwise seemed healthy.”
The puncture wounds may have been from a rabid bite by another animal, but usually rabies symptoms from a head bite appear within days. In any event, a kitten––or puppy––who is under 15 weeks of age is too young to vaccinate successfully, since the animal’s immune system is not yet mature enough to develop antibodies in response to vaccination.
The Washington Area Humane Society nursed Chance to recovery, and offered him for adoption. But whether the puncture wounds Chance came with were the source of exposure, or some other incident, he exhibited rabies symptoms in early December.
Said Dicks, “He was banging his head, could barely walk, and was just attacking anything he saw.”
Continued Jackson, “The rabid cat was immediately isolated, the state Health and Agriculture Departments alerted, and 28 other cats were quarantined. Three staffers who were scratched or bitten were treated with post-exposure prophylaxis shots.”
Second Pennsylvania case
A similar case emerged almost simultaneously at the opposite end of Pennsylvania, in Montgomery County, west of Philadelphia.
“The Montgomery County Health Department has received confirmation that a cat who was being fostered by Green Lane Veterinary Hospital has tested positive for rabies,” the county office of communications announced on December 15, 2014. “The rabid cat has been identified as Jinx, a male tabby who was brown with black stripes and had his tail and both rear legs amputated.”
“The cat had been in the care of the veterinary hospital since November 1,” the announcement continued. “On December 11 the cat became unusually aggressive and exhibited neurological signs indicative of rabies. He was humanely euthanized that same day.”
The cat’s head was sent to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bureau of Laboratories. Fluoroscopic examination to find the negribodies (brain cinders) symptomatic of rabies infection confirmed the diagnosis on December 13, 2014.
Why the cat’s tail and both hind legs had been amputated was not disclosed. Of relevance, however, is that weakness and paralysis in the hind quarters are among the symptoms of rabies.
About as far south of the two Pennsylvania rabies cases in cats as they were from each other, the Halifax County Animal Shelter in southern Virginia “has revised its adoption rules since sending a family home with a rabid dog,” Justin Ward of WBDJ-7 News reported on December 9, 2014.
In November 2014, elaborated Ward, “the animal shelter was overcrowded with dogs and cats, so a local animal rescue group asked to foster a stray dog with six puppies. The animals had just been impounded at the shelter two hours before.”
Halifax County animal warden Todd Moser allowed the mother and pups to be released for fostering, but two days later, Ward continued, the mother dog displayed rabid behavior. Rabies was confirmed after the dog was euthanized, decapitated, and slides of her brain were examined by fluoroscopy. All of the pups were euthanized as a precautionary measure, since the nursing pups of a rabid mother are almost certainly also infected.
Seven people received post-exposure rabies vaccination, “including the foster family and shelter staff,” Ward said.
“Now when an animal is impounded,” Ward continued, “the animal is monitored for signs of any disease, and the animal welfare groups are not given immediate access to the animals.”
Dogs Trust finds forged rabies certificates
While rabies emergencies percolated at shelters in Pennsylvania and Virginia, Dogs Trust released undercover video showing veterinarians in Hungary and Lithuania creating false documentation pertaining to rabies vaccination and quarantine, in order to export dogs for adoption in the United Kingdom.
Said Dogs Trust veterinary director Paula Boyden, “We found that there are breeders, traders and even vets who are quite prepared to
falsify documents and bring in underage puppies into the U.K.”
The largest no-kill shelter chain in the world, operating 20 shelters in the U.K. and Ireland, Dogs Trust rehomes about 15,000 dogs per year.
“We are seeing evidence of animals being fraudulently introduced under the pets passport scheme, and that needs to stop,” U.K. chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens told BBC News.
“There were 2,102 dogs from approved carriers entering the UK from Lithuania in 2013, nearly nine times the number in 2011 (239),” BBC News reported, citing Department of Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs data. “At least 3,044 dogs arrived in the U.K. from Hungary last year, up from 399 in 2011.”
Change of import rules
The surge in imports of dogs from Lithuania and Hungary followed amendments to the European Union Pet Travel Scheme introduced in January 2012. Under the new rules, animals brought into the U.K. from other EU and approved non-EU countries, including the U.S. and Australia no longer need a blood test and need only be quarantined for 21 days following vaccination, before being imported. The 21-day quarantine is reduced from the six month quarantine formerly in effect.
Until under 20 years ago, few animal shelters imported animals for adoption from other shelters, let alone from abroad. Most animal shelters did not allow rescuers and the general public to have access to impounded dogs and cats until after the expiry of mandatory holding periods. And few individuals other than shelter staff and volunteers were involved in rehoming impounded animals. The concept of shelterless rescue, common today, barely existed before the advent of online communications and, in particular, online adoption advertising.
Shelter holding periods, typically ranging from just 24 hours up to two weeks, serve the dual purposes of allowing people who had lost a pet time in which to find and reclaim their animals, and––while far short of a complete quarantine––of providing shelter staff some observation time in which to see whether impounded animals were healthy and temperamentally suitable for adoption.
The most common holding period, required for animals sold to laboratories by the federal Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, was five days.
The National Institutes of Health no longer fund experiments using shelter dogs and cats. As far back as 1971, when the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act was expanded into the Animal Welfare Act of today, only a dwindling minority of shelters transferred animals to laboratory suppliers on a regular basis.
But the five-day hold had already become standard throughout the shelter industry. Only after five days, at most animal control shelters, could an animal either be killed, be adopted, or be released to another shelter or adoption agency.
Capacity vs. intake
Most shelters built during the latter half of the 20th century were designed around the idea that their holding capacity should be approximately equal to intake in an average week, with enough cage space open at all times to immediately accommodate emergency impoundments.
Shorter holds prevailed where shelters became overcrowded in less than five days. As the volume of dogs and cats arriving at shelters dropped to about a seventh of the volume of circa 1971, longer holds became more common.
Holding periods ranging from 24 hours up to two weeks never fully met the need to quarantine animals to prevent disease transmission. Neither did the shelter architecture prevailing until recent years allow for much use of isolation-and-quarantine procedures. Most shelters built during the 20th century originally had no isolation-and-quarantine facilities at all for preventing incoming animals from transmitting airborne disease, or disease transmitted in fecally contaminated runoff from hosing out cages.
The only quarantining that most older animal shelters were designed to do was keeping dogs and cats who had bitten someone for two weeks of observation for rabies symptoms, absent proof of vaccination.
Since all that was necessary in such cases was to prevent the suspect animals from biting anyone else, ordinary shelter caging was sufficient. At the end of the two-week quarantine interval, animals who remained healthy might either have been killed or been returned to their homes. Rarely, however, were they offered for adoption.
These longtime realities of animal control sheltering have changed with the advent of no-kill sheltering as a widespread community goal, and with rising numbers of increasingly competitive rescue agencies lobbying to gain immediate access to impounded animals, in order to place “holds” on any they wish to try to rehome.
Along the way, concern about rabies has receded––prematurely, as the recent Pennsylvania and Virginia cases demonstrate.
Canine rabies had been eliminated from the U.S. by the end of the 20th century, but dogs are still infected from time to time by bites from wildlife, including foxes, skunks, raccoons, and bats. Like dogs, these species have “native” rabies strains, which they can carry and transmit for weeks or months in the “dumb” phase, before evident symptoms emerge.
Cats & bats
As with dogs in the U.S. the risk of rabies transmission from an impounded cat is relatively slight, but for different reasons, and the potential consequences of overlooking a rabies case are unchanged: undetected and untreated rabies infection in invariably fatal. Only promptly post-exposure vaccination can prevent a rabid bite from becoming fatal.
Rabies does not have a long latency interval in cats; there is not a rabies strain native to cats. While any mammal can become infected and die of rabies, those without a native rabies strain––like cats––almost always die within days of exposure, and can only transmit rabies when in the terminal “furious” phase.
This raises the question of what really happened to Chance, the rabid cat found at the Washington Area Humane Society––a question which may be answered when the specific rabies strain that afflicted Chance is identified.
Either Chance had a highly atypical infection from the head wound he had when he arrived at the shelter in May 2014, or was infected while at the shelter. If infection at the shelter occurred, a bite from another rabid cat might have been the vector for transmission, but contact with a rabid bat would be more likely.
Usually in cases of cats becoming rabid despite having been kept indoors, the source is found to have been a bat who somehow entered the cat’s living space from the attic or eaves of the building, or from a hollow tree just outside an open door or window.
All bats native to the U.S. are air-feeding insectivores, who rarely if ever descend to the ground or even cat-grabbing level if healthy. A rabid bat will descend to the ground or floor, however, and a cat will play with the bat.
Bat bites look like pin pricks, almost undetectable on human skin, and even harder to find on a furred animal. The remains of the rabid bat in such cases also may not be found. An injured or rabid bat may crawl into any dark crevice to die, and not be discovered for years. Sometimes cats eat the recognizable remains of bats entirely, as they do the remains of mice.
Where there was one rabid bat, there will almost certainly be more.
Other disease issues
Meanwhile, rabies is only one of the disease transmission issues that animal shelters and rescuers need to be aware of in an era when a “90% live release rate” is an increasingly common shelter management goal. Fewer animals today are euthanized to prevent disease transmission, yet disease remains among the most frequent reasons why dogs and cats come to shelters. Most shelters still lack adequate isolation-and-quarantine facilities.
Longer holding times mean more crowding, and most shelters remain disease incubators, with little or nothing to prevent healthy animals from coming into contact with airborne and waterborne pathogens shed by infected animals.
Earlier in 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Health first quarantined and then temporarily revoked the license of the Fayette County SPCA, issuing more than two dozen citations against the organization and staff for failure to promptly vaccinate incoming animals and failure to maintain sanitary conditions during outbreaks of multiple canine disease in late July and early August.
The State of Maine Animal Welfare Program almost simultaneously imposed a quarantine on the Coastal Humane Society, of Brunswick, Maine, “after five puppies rescued from a shelter in Alabama tested positive for ringworm,” reported Brunswick Press Herald staff writer Dennis Hoey.
Other shelter disease outbreaks of note were reported from California, Indiana, Texas, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
Already memories seem to have faded of the tragedies of spring 2010, when the staffs of five shelters cumulatively euthanized more than 400 exposed animals due to severe disease outbreaks.
Most controversially, the Ontario SPCA announced in May 2010 that it would kill about 350 animals due to ringworm, after containment and treatment efforts begun in February had repeatedly failed. Six workers were also infected. Tests showed that every room at the Ontario SPCA branch shelter in Newmarket, Ontario had become contaminated. About 100 animals were actually killed before the Ontario SPCA outbreak was brought under control.
Just a month earlier, parvovirus caused the Royal SPCA shelter at Townsville in north Queensland, Australia to euthanize more than 200 dogs,
including 50 puppies.
In between, the Humane Society of Carroll County in Maryland, was obliged to euthanize several cats due to an outbreak of feline calicivirus. In Michigan, the Shiawassee Humane Society fought feline infectious peritonitis–an incurable, invariably fatal form of coronavirus––by euthanizing about 35 cats and kittens. The Circle of Friends Humane Society in Grand Forks, North Dakota, had to euthanize 20 dogs after one impounded dog was found to be rabid. The others were believed to have had salival contact with the infected dog, a suspected mode of rabies transmission among dogs, raccoons, and foxes.
Lied Animal Shelter case was worst
The worst recent shelter disease episode, however, came at the Lied Animal Shelter in Las Vegas in February 2007, where outside personnel were brought in to assist in euthanizing more than 1,000 of the 1,800 animals in custody. About 150 of the animals were ill, and 850 were believed to have been exposed to both parvovirus and distemper among the holding kennels for incoming dogs, and panleukopenia among the incoming cats, along with a bacterial infection never previously found in shelters that caused a fatal hemorrhagic pneumonia.
Originally handling only Las Vegas animals, the Lied Animal Shelter opened in February 2001. The Lied management almost immediately came under intensive criticism for purportedly killing incoming animals too quickly, after an incident in which a child’s dog was euthanized by accident.
The shelter was expanded two years later to also hold animals impounded from Clark County, surrounding Las Vegas.
A decade later the shelter tried to go no-kill––prematurely.
“Our policies were written to save every animal we possibly could,” recounted Animal Foundation of Nevada president Janie Greenspun Gale.
The Lied Animal Shelter either adopted or returned to homes 18,358 dogs and cats in 2006, killing 23,557––a record then slightly better than the U.S. national average shelter killing rate per 1,000 human residents of the service area.
But the Lied Animal Shelter also lost 3,652 animals to illness and other causes of death besides lethal injection.
By way of comparison, all shelters combined in the state of Virginia that year lost just 2,152 dogs and cats to “illness and other,” out of 183,828 dogs and cats handled.
Virginia shelters in 2013 killed just 58,802 dogs and cats, down by nearly half from the 114,843 killed in 2006––but 3,514 dogs and cats, nearly half again more, died in Virginia shelters from “illness and other,” a reminder of the risks inherent in trying to save every animal without having adequate facilities and protocols in place to prevent disease transmission.