Saturday, June 11, 2011

Volunteer opportunity: Phone Rota

We need helpers with answering our emergency contact number on a rota basis.

This would involve having calls forwarded to your own telephone for an agreed period - e.g. every Wednesday between 9 am and 1 pm.

The most important reason for maintaining the rota is to make it possible for clinic clients to phone in for an emergency out of hours appointment if their pet has a problem that can't safely be left until the next normal clinic session. This is why we try to make sure that someone is available to pick up an incoming call within ten minutes.

Other calls are mainly from members of the public needing help with animal-related problems and many can be solved by putting them in contact with the main RSPCA control centre, dog warden service etc. 

The rest can usually be divided into ones asking for information about using the animal clinic (e.g. opening times, charges, what proof of benefit is required) and requests for help with out of hours veterinary emergencies where the owner is not able to pay for a private vet to treat their animal.

Full training will be given.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Animal Welfare Statistics for May

Badger is looking for a home
During May 2011 our clinic treated 245 dogs, 81 cats, 9 rabbits and 8 miscellaneous "small furries".  We neutered 12 dogs and 6 cats and chipped 9 dogs and 6 cats. We rehomed 3 dogs, 4 cats and 2 guinea-pigs.

I'm getting more and more despondent about the number of desperate calls we receive from areas so far outside our catchment area that there's no practical way we could possibly agree to see them. Most recent was from Croydon in Surrey, which I think I was able to help by putting the caller in touch with a PDSA clinic closer to her home. More worrying was from a private vet clinic near Peterborough, whose receptionist was phoning to ask where she could send a client with no money to get his pet treated free, and was shocked to find the answer is: there isn't anywhere. Unfortunately I'm very much afraid more and more vets are having to make a choice whether they will put down treatable animals, or give owners time to pay, knowing that many never will.

Dealing with ringworm in shelters

There's an authoritative fact sheet about ringworm control in a shelter setting on the UC Davis Veterinary School's Shelter Medicine site. Be aware that it's based in the US, so some of the veterinary preparations mentioned may not be available in the UK. However it does give a very clear explanation of exactly why ringworm is so difficult to deal with in a situation where there is continual pressure to take in more animals who will suffer or die if no space is found to house them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Learning from the misfortunes of others

For shelters and animal centres

Most obviously the importance of avoiding panic actions and the importance of using the best scientific evidence to confirm exactly what is happening.

For those in charge of health and safety decision-making

The need to respect the emotional well-being of staff and volunteers—in terms of unhappiness and stress the efforts to protect workers were probably much more harmful to them than the original infection risk.

For animal advocates

Treating large animal charities as if they were quasi-governmental bodies makes things worse. One of the reasons why OSPCA was reluctant to go down the route of expensive treatment and testing to eradicate the infection was a genuine shortage of funds (like the RSPCA they have a lot of money, but spread very thinly due to the demands put on them). And one of the reasons why large animal charities are short of resources is because they're treated as though it's self-evident that they already have enough funds.

Too many animal advocates try to punish the large charities for not having enough funds, or set up organisations to "fill the gaps", so diverting resources away from the animals in most desperate need of help.

Bottom line: the majority in society as a whole dislikes cruelty and wants it stopped, but it does not feel the same intense bond with animals that we do. Transferring SPCA functions to government or local authorities would almost certainly mean more, not less, pressure to be "realistic" and "responsible" (for example to accept killing as the quickest way to eliminate ringworm and reduce the risk of human infection). Demands that the government "does something" to make animal charities more accountable are quite likely to translate into requirements for higher calibre (and therefore more highly paid) management.

One of the volunteers at the Ontario shelter has a blog, though, sadly, it looks as if she got disheartened and stopped posting in July last year.

I think one of her last posts is so important for the general truths it has to say about working to protect animals that I'm reproducing most of it here:

"The shelter will, once again, fill up, and those animals will need our help. I don't agree with their decision, but I do believe in the organization's long-term goal of making sure each and every pet finds a safe forever-home. Thousands of animals have been successfully adopted from the shelter, and with your assistance, more will be adopted in the future. If we truly want to make a difference, we have to educate our kids, friends and neighbours -- don't let your dogs or cats wander, neuter and spay them, and report all cases of abuse. 

Volunteer. Be a part of the team that will make sure this never happens again. And if you're as heartbroken as I am, then just imagine how this has destroyed the souls of the wonderful staff who care for the animals each day. They deserve our support and encouragement. I don't know how they will deal with the emotional fallout from what has happened."

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.