Of shelter visits and emerging respiratory infections (no, it's not kennel cough)
The tawny pit bull mix was clearly dead, lying in a pool of his own blood. In the run next door, a shepherd mix was laying on his side, panting heavily and staring at the wall with a glazed expression on his face. Omigod, is this what it’s always like at these places?
I made my first visit to Miami-Dade Animal Services (our County-funded animal shelter) last Monday night. In an overabundance of guilt I decided to get a little more active in my local VMA (veterinary medical association). Truth be told, it was because the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association (SFVMA) held its first board meeting of the year at this venue that I felt compelled to attend. (Killing two birds with one stone, as it were.)
For a while now, I’ve been hoping to get a bird’s-eye view of the shelter with a behind-the-scenes tour. Last Monday’s meeting offered a double-bonus: A full-facility tour presented by Miami-Dade’s top dog in Animal Services, Dr. Sara Pizano.
I also got to see the first two cases of a devastating disease now sweeping through the facility: a fulminating respiratory infection that looks like kennel cough but progresses quickly to what looked to me like canine Ebola. Blood everywhere. Within 24 hours of the first symptoms. I can’t imagine anything scarier.
Since this began, 15 more dogs have succumbed and adoptions are on permahold. Here’s the letter that’s making the email rounds courtesy of Dr. Pizano:
Dear Colleagues,Every shelter struggles with respiratory infections such as kennel cough. However, since February 5, we have had twelve dogs die suddenly who had minimal to no respiratory signs. All were adults who came in as strays and were here from 3-9 days. Symptoms started with mild respiratory signs (coughing) and within 6-12 hours (overnight), coughed blood and died. Most bodies were found in large pools of blood.We have sent samples to Dr. Kate Hurley at UC Davis and Dr. Cynda Crawford at the University of Florida. Dr. Crawford will be visiting us on Friday to sample our current population. In consultation with them, the only time they have seen anything resembling this problem was at a shelter in Nevada. That problem was diagnosed as Strep. Zoo. We will let you know as soon as we have any test results.In the shelter we are doing the following:1. adoptions are closed 2. we are attempting to divert owner surrenders to other shelters or rescue groups 3. we are asking those individuals leaving strays to care for the animals in their homes temporarily 4. we are doing our rabies clinic in the parking lot 5. we are counseling those individuals with dogs on hold about this problem 6. we have educated our staff, volunteers, rescue partners and are meeting with the media 7. we have suspended surgery 8. we are continuing to escort people who have lost their pets through the shelter 9. we are doing a massive cleaning of the whole shelter and attempting to keep ‘clean’ areas
Dr.Pizano has been at the shelter since its management structure was overhauled by the County three years ago. Instead of law enforcement managers (yes, the police department), the County recruited a vet who had cut her teeth at a neighboring county’s shelter.
It’s clear that Dr. Pizano is a political animal of the take-no-prisoners variety, which I’m hoping will serve her well in our cutthroat county government. Since she arrived at this dilapidated, egregiously mismanaged shelter, she’s doubled adoption rates and can recite chapter and verse of Winograd’s treatise. When I questioned her, she claimed that, “there’s nothing [he advocates ] we’re not doing here.”
To that end, she’s lobbying hard for a private foundation to funnel money into building a new facility where infectious disease can be better managed and the citizens of our County can be better enticed to meet their new loved ones.
But every day brings new disasters. Over a hundred new animals come in every day. Over 30,000 a year. And she’s only one person.
As I left the facility on Monday night I couldn’t help asking the security guard on duty at the gate one last thing: “How many employees work here at night?” It was a trick question. I already knew the answer: “Just me, Miss.”