Virginia animal shelters face crisis as canine influenza spikes
For people, flu season usually starts in the fall, but for dogs and cats living in shelters, sickness peaks in the summer.
Sue Bell, president of the board of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies, said people going on vacation are unlikely to adopt a pet, so shelters are crowded.
"When you have more animals in a confined area, if one comes in with a cold, then much like a child daycare, it tends to spread to all of the other animals," she said.
Bell’s organization represents more than 125 shelters, including many independent, breed-specific rescues in Hampton Roads.
Many members across the state are facing a crisis. Several Hampton Roads shelters said there isn't a localized outbreak of canine influenza, but they are monitoring seasonal animal illnesses.
Bell, whofounded a rescue organization in Northern Virginia called Homeward Trails, has had to temporarily shut down her operation twice because of a rash of illnesses.
"Ninety percent of the animals in our adoption center had broken with some variation of canine influenza,” she said.
“There is a large shelter just over the line in Maryland who remained shut down to adoptions, because canine influenza had become so widespread in their shelter that they simply can’t get on top of it.”
Like people, infected dogs may be listless, have fever and a cough. Animals can be vaccinated to protect against the flu, but Bell said there isn’t enough vaccine to go around and it’s expensive.
Outbreaks are also made worse by shelters that are more crowded, creating more stress for animals.
"Dogs and cats that used to come in and leave within five days to adopters are now sitting for weeks and sometimes months,” Bell said.
“When you have an animal sitting around in a shelter environment, their stress level increases, and just like humans, when your stress level increases you are more susceptible to illness."
And, Bell said, veterinary services were limited during the pandemic. That included spay and neutering services, which meant in some places, unplanned litters are overwhelming shelters.
Ironically, the surplus of pets is also tied to a spike in adoptions when people were staying home to keep from catching COIVD.
"We do believe that during COVID some areas reached adoption saturation," Bell said. "That means fewer adoptive homes available now to take in an animal."
Plus, she said, shelters are reluctant to release dogs that could infect pets in the community.
"It is a dilemma, because we obviously need these animals to move out into homes, but when you’re placing animals in homes with other dogs, there is a much-heightened chance that those existing dogs will get sick from their newly adopted dog or their foster dog."
Longer term, she’s hoping for public support in Richmond. During the next legislative session, Bell will be pressing lawmakers to provide more money for public shelters which she says are dramatically underfunded.
WHRO staff contributed to this report