In early July, the Athens-Clarke County Animal Shelter dealt with a possible outbreak of feline panleukopenia, or “panleuk,” in the cat shelter area. Panleuk is a very contagious virus among unvaccinated cats that has a high mortality rate, especially among kittens.
Based on preliminary test results indicating that two cats were infected, symptoms of some cats in the shelter in different rooms, discussions with a nearby shelter that had dealt with a previous panleuk outbreak, and reviews of resources by the American Veterinary Medical Association and other professional organizations, shelter staff opted to close the cat shelter for two weeks to all adoptions and intakes. During this time, staff performed a deep clean and sanitation of the three isolation rooms.
As part of the response, and to prevent further spread of a possible virus before it affected more cats in the shelter, staff made the difficult decision to euthanize 31 cats due to probable exposure to the sick cats. One of the kittens that tested positive for panleuk was sent to the UGA Diagnostic Laboratory for a necropsy. A preliminary report was received after the euthanizations that indicated that the kitten was negative, but not conclusive, for panleuk.
The report noted that the preliminary test is a fast procedure that may occasionally yield false-positive and false-negative results that should be interpreted in conjunction with other findings and test results. Shelter management received the final necropsy report on the second cat approximately two weeks later with a finding that it was “unlikely this cat was infected with feline panleukopenia virus.”
Due to the cleaning, the quarantine, and these other steps taken to limit cats’ exposure to illnesses, approximately half of the cat shelter population were unaffected by the event. The quarantine ended on July 20 without further evidence of possible disease. Staff communicated with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which licenses the shelter, during the quarantine. The lead inspector visited twice and consulted with the state veterinarian during this process.
Challenges to the Animal Shelter operations include spread of disease, staffing shortages, the need to update/create policies, and training. In this case, there was not a protocol in place to manage this emergent event. Staff used their best judgment with the information they had at the time to prevent the event from escalating.
Prior to this event, and with an understanding that improvements were needed at the Animal Shelter, the Unified Government invited the Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) to perform an assessment of shelter operations. From April 30 through May 2, 2019, representatives from the BFAS and Gwinnett County Animal Welfare and Enforcement visited Athens-Clarke County Animal Control for a review of shelter and field operations. BFAS is a national animal welfare organization founded in 1984 that runs programs in partnership with over 2,600 animal welfare groups across the United States.
The Unified Government requested this review due to the organizations’ reputations and their approach to provide reviews with recommendations specific to our community and shelter.
Athens-Clarke County received the review on June 25, 2019 and was already reviewing these recommendations when the quarantine event took place. Some of the suggested changes have already been implemented. Others will take some time to consider due to requiring ordinance changes or budget implications. However, the Unified Government is committed to making continued improvements using the review as one guide. The full review is available at www.accgov.com/animalshelter. Some of the recommendations from the assessment include, but are not limited to:
- Ordinance revisions around feral cats and stray hold periods.
- Review peer shelter operations and funding levels.
- Review restrictive adoption policies and fees.
- Animal Control Officers to offer proactive education, less emphasis on enforcement.
- Seek ways to make spay/neuter more affordable.
- Convert five part time positions to two full time, one part time.
- Switch the type of cleaner used.
- Change cat classifications.
- Volunteers to assist with transport of sick animals.
- Use of a contract veterinarian.
- Create a managed animal intake program.
- Improved community engagement.
- Vaccination clinics.
- Survey of volunteers.
The Animal Shelter has already made a number of improvements over the past year. Some of these improvements include:
- Creating a new foster program to allow animals that are not ready for adoption to be placed in a temporary foster home until they can be adopted.
- Partnering with organizations that transport cats to shelters in northern states where there is more demand for adoption.
- Changing cleaning protocols and products based on the review and recommendations from the Athens Area Humane Society and concerned volunteers.
- Beginning the Fear Free Shelter Program on August 21 that is designed to improve the emotional experiences of animals and reduce the negative emotional states that are commonly experienced by shelter animals, including fear, anxiety, stress, and frustration.
- Providing shelter staff with Shelter Technician Certification training in July 2019.
- Working with Dr. Jeff Legato, a local veterinarian, to provide weekly rabies vaccinations for shelter animals that need them beginning August 28.
- Creating a new part-time volunteer coordinator to establish a formal shelter volunteer program.
- Re-establishing outreach programs for community education and encouraging adoptions by taking animals to external events.
- Creating a “Doggie Day Trip” program to allow approved volunteers to take a dog away from the shelter for the day for the health and well-being of the dog.
- Creating a second supervisory position to allow for one to oversee field operations and one to oversee shelter operations.
“The Animal Shelter operations rely on working with community partners towards a common goal,” said Manager Blaine Williams. “Working with these groups and guided by the independent Best Friends Animal Society assessment and the quarantine event, shelter policies and procedures will be overhauled for best practice approaches.”