Let’s say you are one of the dedicated minions longing to save the world one dog at a time. I worship you. Specifically, I respect your zeal for the zillions of homeless dogs waiting hopefully for you to pour your love and devotion into the lucky one you choose every ten years or so. Thank God you exist for without you and your commitment to the canine cause there would be millions more dead dogs to account for in our country each year.

But have you been to a municipal shelter recently? In Miami-Dade County, where I live, I can’t go to my local shelter without bursting into tears at the sights, the sounds and the smells of the devastation all around me.

Lest you think me overly dramatic, I should tell you that our local shelter is a serious dump. We have the choice of driving just forty minutes farther and finding another couple of shelters that are better maintained through private sources of funding. The wholly county-supported shelter, however, would curl your toes.

This week my hospital saw one of its casualties. An owned [if poorly cared for] dog belonging to one of our less devoted clients absconded from his yard and found his way to the pound via animal control limo service. This tagless, microchip-free dog was in lockup for several days before the owners finally determined his whereabouts. By that time he had contracted kennel cough and distemper. I guess you could say he was lucky in that he somehow escaped euthanasia.

According to our records this young, intact Rottweiler mix had never completed his series of puppy vaccinations. Distemper, at full-blown epidemic level inside the shelter walls, was probably hot on his heels within 24 hours of his incarceration. Usually more devastating to young pups, the distemper virus can still kill adults — this particular case ended in euthanasia after the virus finally claimed his brain.

Shelters often suffer overwhelmingly from diseases due to the close quarters these dogs and cats must share. Distemper, kennel cough, and tick-borne infections run rampant particularly in places whose facilities don’t meet certain criteria for air handling. The cats are chronically infected with upper respiratory diseases. One giant AC unit means every dog and cat gets to breathe the same infected air. Poor sanitation due to skeleton staffing means that transmissible parasites, bacteria and viruses flourish in the unchecked filth.

So how can I sanely recommend that anyone adopt a dog from one of these facilities? As much as I want to curb the problem I cannot, in good conscience, suggest that my clients take on the potential heartache that comes with rescuing dogs from such places. I usually find them dogs fostered by individuals I know or recommend they drive to the neighboring county where the facilities are cleaner and disease is not so widespread.

To be sure, there are special people out there who do prefer to take on Miami-Dade Animal Services shelter dogs knowing the issues they are likely to face. These people rock my world. But, as with parents who adopt special-needs children, they are few and far between.

I fear that I am doing a disservice to my community in actively counseling my clients to stay away from this facility and others like it. But, until conditions improve dramatically I will continue to urge my clients to drive on. I can write letters to my local paper (I have) and lend my voice in municipal meetings (I have) and even offer to volunteer (they’ve turned me down) but nothing will change until the entire community voices its demand for change.

Until then I will keep diverting my clients, friends and family from such places, even if it results in the acceleration of their downward spiral. Perhaps sinking to rock bottom is the only way to get the attention of those who have the power to effect real change. Clearly a distemper epidemic is not enough. Sometimes even vets pray for a rabies wake-up call.

Image: Shelter Dog by eng1ne