Monday, June 6, 2011

Ringworm and animal shelters

The Ontario SPCA in Canada has just published the findings of an independent investigation into the handling of ringworm cases at their York region branch last year. It's extremely long and detailed (the link above goes to the summary), but contains lots of very important discussion, not just about how shelters should deal with the issue of ringworm infection, but also about the role SPCAs play in society. 

One thing that comes over very strongly is that the report's co-authors (the former Dean of Ontario Veterinary College and the former Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court) essentially looked at everything the SPCA was struggling to do and recoiled saying no-one could possibly cope with it all on the kind of budget they have available.

Ontario SPCA is one of the few SPCAs round the world which have statutory powers and duties to investigate and prosecute animal cruelty entirely independently of the police. It also has virtually sole responsibility for stray animals and apparently an open-ended commitment to take in unwanted animals. Unlike the RSPCA it does get some government funding for its law-enforcement role, but the amount is quite low.

This means its shelters are continually under pressure to house the unwanted and strays and also any animals taken into care as a result of ongoing investigations and prosecutions. Recent legislation imposes conflicting obligations to take all possible measures to prevent spread of disease, while forbidding vaccination of incoming strays because there is no way to get the owner's permission. 

Ringworm is particularly frightening to any shelter because it can infect humans as well as most other mammals, but it is a fungal disease (nothing to do with worms) which normally causes nothing more than self-limiting skin disease (possibly no visible disease at all) in healthy people and animals. 

This means there are really serious moral issues about dealing with cases in a shelter. On the one hand it's essential that the disease is contained (no-one is going to adopt from a shelter if it means all your children end up itching and scratching). On the other hand it's very difficult to justify extreme measures, like mass culling, to control something that the vast majority of people and animals will throw off with  quite minor  treatment.

In OSPCA's case the misery seems to have been compounded by the inherent inaccuracies in scientific tests for ringworm which meant shelter management could never be quite sure whether it was still present or not. The final straw came when staff and volunteers had become so distressed by the probability it would lead to animals being killed that they were refusing to notify management of possible human ringworm infections they were experiencing themselves. This was illegal under Ontario's Health and Safety legislation and the Ministry of Labour then stepped in.  

The independent investigation was set up in response to a campaign against the shelter sparked off by reports that all animals currently in its care were to be euthanased in order to stamp out infection. The failings which it did expose seem likely to fuel further campaigns and I think it's likely these will have the opposite effect from that intended by reducing funding for the shelter while increasing the amount of resources they have to divert into health and safety compliance, and possibly requiring them to set tighter limits on the numbers of animals they can house.

It seems likely that there never was an "epidemic" of ringworm and that the infection was in fact limited to the original group of very matted long-haired cats who had been taken in at the start of the incident. 

Ironically this report comes out as the e-coli salad vegetable incident demonstrates just how difficult it is to pin down the origin and spread of disease, even with all the resources of a government health department.

Incidentally, infections are not a one-way-street: animals can sometimes catch nasty bugs from humans  too.

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