by Kim Schulze, MS
This is a reflection on a distemper outbreak/quarantine from a behavior perspective, as opposed to an operations, medical, or management review.
Maricopa County Animal Care and Control is located in Phoenix, Arizona. We have two shelter locations known as our West Valley Animal Care Center in Phoenix and East Valley Animal Care Center in Mesa. Our dog and cat intake for 2019 was around 28,000. At the East location, we typically have 300-350 dogs in our care on any given day, with three behavior staff members to perform assessments and provide enrichment and behavior modification. The behavior department is relatively new; it was created in June 2017 with two positions created for me (MCACC East behavior and enrichment coordinator) and one staff member at the West location.
Every shelter likely experiences some sort of disease uptick during certain times of year. At MCACC East, we are no different. In May 2019, staff and volunteers noticed an increase in the number of sick dogs at our shelter. We kept waiting for the numbers to abate as they usually eventually do, but instead numbers continued to climb at an alarming rate. On June 4, 2019, seven dogs were euthanized due to illness, and we knew we were at a crossroads. On June 5, 2019, our shelter manager made the announcement that the East shelter would be on quarantine due to an outbreak of distemper; no more animals would be coming in, and we were shut down to the public.
What does a complete quarantine entail? For MCACC, this meant the West shelter location would have to absorb all of the East shelter’s intake of dogs and cats; this included owner surrenders, strays, and adoption returns. The behavior team at West would have their three staff members handling that many more animals each day. Our West shelter has higher daily intakes and often transfers some of their dogs to our location to create kennel space; that would be coming to an end, as well. Summer usually means we are functioning at capacity at both shelters, so this was already a high-stress time of year. Intakes would be non-existent at the East shelter, so staffing was reduced from week to week. We knew there would be at least a two-week quarantine, but it ended up lasting from June 5 to 30, 2019. No dog was to leave their kennel unless under directive of the veterinary staff or shelter manager.
The behavior team was charged with in-kennel enrichment for the canine population. We had two behavior staff at the time, and there needed to be a plan formulated quickly. Initially, we created a schedule with visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and edible enrichment. We were inundated with requests from volunteers who wanted to help, but ultimately had to limit each day’s sign-up to four volunteers or fewer at a time. We met with our shelter manager and head veterinarian to brainstorm what we could and could not do during the quarantine. This wasn’t going to be our regular in-kennel enrichment. We had to take into account new disease protocols and clear each enrichment activity with the medical staff to limit possible transfer of disease; several of our enrichment ideas were not approved due to the possibility for cross-contamination, so we tried to brainstorm as many new ideas as possible.
We quickly found out what did and did not work for lowering arousal levels while keeping mental stimulation in play for the dogs. The first week, arousal levels were very high; the dogs were still associating the sight of people with the opportunity to get out of kennels and go for walks. Barking, jumping, and lunging were observed in high frequency when any person entered the wings; even someone peeking through the window of the door could send the entire wing into an uproar. Our shelter is an older building consisting of three wings of 100-plus kennels with each kennel only about 2 ½ feet wide and 3 ½ feet deep on the inside portion, and the same size outside of the guillotine door; this configuration of housing contributed to high arousal levels on any given regular day of operations. Most dogs were familiar with receiving in-kennel edible enrichment, and we saw the most positive response (settling to sit, quietly waiting) to edible chews, stuffed Kongs, frozen broth treats, etc.
The dogs seemed to respond best (maintaining or lowering arousal levels while engaging) to any activities involving edible enrichment, and also really enjoyed their toys and scent enrichment. Visual enrichment (bubbles, wands, lights turned with visual novel stimuli, etc.) seemed to be more frustrating for them. Even though some of the dogs seemed interested in the change in visual landscape, most of the dogs appeared more frustrated by people passing by with no interaction or “exchange of goods.” We phased visual enrichment out that second week. Nap time was a huge success! We turned the lights off, played calming music, and no person entered the wings (no spot cleaning, absolutely no activity) from 1-3 pm. As the days and weeks progressed, our kennels were the quietest I had ever heard them.
We were learning to be the nicest “mean people” we could be. The community really rallied behind our dogs, and enrichment donations poured in like Christmas in June. Donations were coming from around the country; we were in awe and overwhelmed by the generosity. Every day a concerned citizen was dropping off donations and wanting to provide the dogs comfort in their kennels: we had to say “no” to citizens who were asking to visit with the dogs or walk through the kennels. Our first concern was limiting any transmission of disease, and our second concern was keeping the dogs as calm as possible. What we quickly realized was, for our population to survive this quarantine, they needed fewer people providing as much enrichment as possible. They needed predictability and a daily routine; no matter how well-meaning, random people dropping by and walking through the wings was not part of that routine.
Daily operations change quite a bit when intakes go to zero. Initially, there were deep-cleaning and organizing tasks for staff to complete. Changes in kennel cleaning procedures were made, but essentially, staff were either cleaning kennels, providing enrichment, or being asked to euthanize dogs. Thankfully, management was allowing blind adoptions and rescue, so there were small celebrations when a dog was released to an adopter or rescue. At the time, I did not realize how important those positive moments were for all of us. There were several times during the quarantine when I would stop and look around at my co-workers and my heart would break a little for them and the dogs. We all were at the shelter because we wanted to help animals, yet were all very limited in what we could contribute to help the dogs in this particular situation. Each day was mentally spent wondering which dog might be the next to be diagnosed or take a turn for the worse, or hoping that certain dogs would start to improve. The staff/people part of the equation is something I would not have expected to account for if I weren’t there to experience it and see it for myself.
The worst day
On a Friday about halfway through the quarantine, blood draws and swabs were to be taken from every dog still remaining in the shelter. This would be the first time the dogs would be getting out of their kennels and no one was looking forward to the interaction the dogs would experience. Each dog would be pulled out of the kennel about 2-3 feet, a sample from their eye and back of the throat would be swabbed and a blood sample would be taken. Once the samples were obtained, the dog would immediately be returned to the kennel. From a behavior standpoint, this was a nightmare. The dogs would be highly aroused and ready for their long awaited walks/play time/human interaction. They would not only be denied that out-of-kennel enrichment and positive human interaction, but also be subjected to a highly stressful situation; they would be restrained in the most stressful area of our shelter (the middle of a kennel wing). From a medical perspective this was something that had to be done and had to be done quickly for sake of the entire population, but from a behavior perspective we were dreading it. I asked to be part of the process, hoping to provide some behavioral input on dogs who may be more difficult to handle and also to provide some familiarity for the dogs. I will never forget the wide eyes and panicked reactions of some of our more fearful and undersocialized dogs as several looming figures in medical gowns reached toward them with gloved hands. There were some dogs that ultimately needed to be sedated, while others were highly aroused and difficult to restrain. Others were just leaning in and soaking up as much interaction with people as they could. If I could pick one day of the quarantine to have a “do-over,” this day would be it; even a few small operational changes would likely have lowered the stress levels for the dogs.
Once the dogs were tested, results started coming back. As dogs started to test either negative or positive for distemper, we had a clearer picture of our situation and how to proceed. Eventually, the population started to stabilize, and we could consider lifting the quarantine and getting back to regular daily operations. As you can imagine, volunteers and staff were wanting to get the dogs out of their kennels as soon as possible. The other behavior team member and I were the first people to start pulling dogs from their kennels. Initially, there were only a few dogs who were cleared to go for walks. We really did not know what to expect. Would the dogs be crazy and out of control after almost a month of no outside time? We were so pleasantly surprised by the relatively well-behaved dogs that came out for their walks those first days. Just like you and me, after almost a month of no real physical activity, we saw some plumper pups for whom a quick 15-minute walk or sniff session would wear them out. We were still taking precautions to avoid cross-contamination and worked with the shelter manager and head veterinarian on how to proceed with re-integrating out-of-kennel enrichment (play groups were temporarily put on hold). Two days before we reopened to the public, volunteers were cleared to come in and start walking dogs. We did not want to overwhelm the dogs with 100 volunteers showing up that first morning, so we created a sign-up and limited walkers to different shifts. Luckily, mother nature was on our side and gave us a reprieve from 100-plus degree temperatures. All of the dogs got out of their kennels before we opened to the public, and it was an amazing feeling for everyone: the dogs, volunteers, staff, and the community who had been supporting and watching from afar.
Somewhat ironically, June 2019 was the two-year anniversary of the existence of a behavior department at MCACC. This was not how I planned to celebrate. I will never forget the dogs we lost and still tear up thinking about some of my favorite faces who are no longer with us. I hope no other shelter has to experience a quarantine or disease outbreak like this, but many months later I am thankful we had dogs recover, survive, and find great homes. Looking back, there are many things I wish I could have changed at the time, but looking forward, these are the lessons I take away:
Be flexible and learn from your mistakes. You can have the grandest and most detailed of plans, but once implemented, your best plans may not be so great after all. You have to go with the flow, make adjustments, or be willing to completely abandon what you originally thought would be an amazing idea. You are going to make mistakes. It’s okay. What’s not okay is recognizing a mistake and then continuing on that same path. This isn’t about you, it’s about the animals.
Fewer people = lower arousal = less stress. When a devastating event like this occurs, everyone wants to help. It is difficult telling people “no,” but remember that the well-being of the animals is the first priority. In our situation especially, less was more.
People matter too. Everyone deals differently with a stressful situation like this. Cutting off communication with interested and concerned parties helps no one. Communication is the key. Keep everyone in the loop: volunteers, staff, and the community. Offer help and even counseling to staff if needed. At the very least, be willing to listen and be willing to accept suggestions and offers of assistance.
Have a plan. No one wants to experience an outbreak. No one wants to quarantine their population. But, just like with any other emergency situation, having a plan beforehand will likely decrease time lost trying to get organized when time is of the essence.
Work as a team. It takes everyone working together to create the best outcomes for the animals. Kennel staff, clinic, behavior, management, volunteers, and the community are all important components of a successful outcome.
Kim Schulze has a M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from the University of North Texas and has been a speech-language pathologist for over 20 years (working mainly with individuals with autism). Her passion has always been animals and around 2000, she started to volunteer with local rescues and adopted several rescue dogs. She found that her behavior experience in speech therapy carried over into working with animals. She started volunteering at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control in 2014 and that led to accepting a position in the newly created behavior department. She has been in her current role of Behavior and Enrichment Coordinator at MCACC since June 2017 and still sees a few speech therapy clients, as well.