Health risks accompany shelter dogs transported for adoption
Published on September 14, 2011
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More and more animal shelters and individuals are participating in cross-country programs to transport adoptable dogs from source shelters with a large supply, often in the South, to areas with more demand, often in the Northeast.

But, some of these dogs arrive with health problems, such as infectious diseases or heartworm infection, to the dismay of the destination shelters or their adoptive families. Veterinarians in the Northeast also have expressed concern and frustration as they see increasing numbers of unhealthy dogs from out of state, originating not only from shelters and individual rescue efforts but also from direct-to-consumer sales.

In 2010, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians released their Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, which cover animal transport. Also last year, the National Federation of Humane Societies released their own guidelines on animal transport.

Rescue Waggin' at the Ozaukee County campus of the Wisconsin Humane Society
Anthony Tursi (photo at left), an animal transport coordinator for Rescue Waggin', and Jamie Christianson (photo at right), Rescue Waggin' transport manager for the Midwest region, handle dogs arriving at the Ozaukee County campus of the Wisconsin Humane Society. The dogs originated from Scott County Humane Society in Kentucky. Rescue Waggin' transports adoptable dogs from source shelters with a large supply to destination shelters with a high demand. (Photos courtesy of Humane Strategies Inc.) 

"If we are careful, we can do transport in ways that are responsible and (that) do balance risk with the benefit," said Dr. Sandra Newbury, shelter extension veterinarian at the University of California-Davis. "Do we want to draw lines around our communities to say that we can help the animals within this boundary, but we can't help the animals on the other side of this boundary?"

Many formal transport programs, both shelter efforts and independent operations, have developed their own health and safety protocols. These include national programs such as Rescue Waggin', with funding from PetSmart Charities, and the new Animal Relocation Initiative from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—as well as smaller operations such as Homeward Bound, a program that veterinary students started at Mississippi State University (see article).

Fly-by-night transport programs and individual efforts also exist, with little by way of health or safety standards. Some startup programs do not have extensive protocols, either.

Regulations governing interstate transport of companion animals do not always apply to the transport of shelter animals or can be difficult to enforce. The federal government regulates only commercial transport of dogs and cats across state lines, and state governments do not check for certificates of veterinary inspection at their borders.

A number of veterinarians in the Northeast have backed new state regulations in an attempt to prevent importation of dogs with health problems.

"It almost seems like the pet population pool is endless," said Dr. Karen M. Bradley, co-owner of Onion River Animal Hospital in Middlesex, Vt. "We may be relocating (dogs), but are we really reducing the number of unwanted pets in the higher (population) areas?"  

Health standards

Animal transport has become an important tool in the sheltering field, said Dr. Newbury, who chaired the ASV guidelines task force. 

"There's really such an incredibly broad spectrum of how it's being done—ranging from really well-organized, codified ventures all the way down to single individuals posting things on Craigslist and somebody running down and grabbing an animal and bringing it somewhere else, " Dr. Newbury said. "And all of those things can be done well."

The Animal Rescue League of Boston made its first foray into animal transport years ago, said Dr. Martha M. Smith-Blackmore, ASV president and ARL director of veterinary medical services. The ARL received a call from a shelter in South Carolina that was closing and planned to euthanize animals within 24 hours.

"We went down and moved the animals out, and I learned an awful lot of really what we should have been doing better," Dr. Smith-Blackmore said. "So for me that planted a seed in terms of trying to help develop better programs for animal transport and having it be a structured, proactive, planned activity."

The ARL later developed a small program that brings in puppies and some older dogs, after medical and behavioral screening, from a shelter in Maryland. As part of the program, the ARL provides resources to spay the mothers.

Dr. Newbury has consulted with many shelters on transport programs. Generally, the source shelters are in communities facing challenges that contribute to dog overpopulation. Often, the destination shelters offer support in addition to taking dogs, such as support for medication or spaying and neutering.

Not every transport program moves dogs from South to North, and some programs transport dogs within regions or even within the same state. Any transport of an animal poses a health risk, Dr. Newbury said. One of the worst situations she has seen was a crosstown transfer that led to an outbreak of distemper.

According to the ASV guidelines, programs that transport animals should develop protocols for medical and behavioral screening and for transportation and destination requirements. For interstate transport, the guidelines note, all states require rabies vaccination for dogs and most states require certificates of veterinary inspection.

The ASV guidelines for transport programs go on to provide details regarding responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of animals at the point of origin, during transport, and at the destination.


ASPCA in Missouri
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals prepares
animals for transport from Caruthersville Humane Society in Caruthersville, Mo., to other shelters in Missouri and Kansas. The ASPCA permanently relocated the animals to free up space for the Caruthersville shelter to take in animals displaced by flooding. (Courtesy of Mike Bizelli/ASPCA)

Transport programs

Rescue Waggin' is likely the largest transport program in the country, connecting 39 source shelters and 20 destination shelters in four regions. Humane Strategies Inc. operates Rescue Waggin', and PetSmart Charities provides the funding.  

David Wintz, outreach coordinator for Humane Strategies, said Rescue Waggin' tries to keep the dog leg of each trip to 10 or 11 hours. One of the program's custom trucks picks up dogs from a source shelter at 5 or 6 a.m., then delivers dogs to a destination shelter in the afternoon.

Source shelters must ensure that dogs meet medical requirements prior to transport, with Rescue Waggin' providing reimbursement for vaccination and deworming. Dogs age 6 months and older must pass a behavioral evaluation.

"Our program is designed to transport healthy, behaviorally sound animals to our destinations," Wintz said. "Our destinations have to be able to move the animals through the system. If there's an issue that slows down the system, that hurts the source shelter, too, because that slows down the ability for them to take more animals."

Rescue Waggin' also works with source shelters to increase local adoption of animals, enabling some source shelters to graduate out of the transport program.

Earlier this year, the ASPCA announced its new Animal Relocation Initiative, beginning with efforts to transport animals out of shelters in areas recovering from disasters to shelters where more space is available.

The ASPCA has experience relocating animals out of New York City to shelters elsewhere and in response to both disasters and cruelty investigations, said Ed Sayres, the organization's president. The organization has also become aware of the growth of grassroots relocation initiatives.

"One of the things we bring to the table is to get some protocols on how to do this safely and correctly as well as kind of connect all the efforts that are doing this and try to build up a better network and a more stable network," Sayres said.

In 2009 and 2010, the ASPCA wrote protocols for emergency relocation and devoted custom vehicles to those efforts. The Animal Relocation Initiative will focus in the future on transporting animals from shelters with a large supply to areas with few or no similar animals available for adoption. 

State regulations

Fly-by-night transport of rescue animals is a concern to many private practitioners and state veterinarians in the Northeast. An intertwining issue is direct-to-consumer sales of dogs from out of state.  

In recent years, Dr. Bradley said, she and other practitioners in Vermont have started to see dogs with heartworm infection and other health problems typically uncommon in the state. The owners usually said they had adopted the dogs from out of state via the Internet, picking up the dogs in a parking lot.

Until recently, Vermont was one of the few states that did not require a certificate of veterinary inspection for the importation of dogs. The Vermont VMA and Vermont Agency of Agriculture successfully pushed for a law to require the certificates, effective in July 2010. Now, Dr. Bradley said, practitioners can at least contact the agriculture agency if a dog does not have a certificate.

Despite some of her misgivings about the transport of rescue animals, Dr. Bradley has a positive attitude about the importation of dogs by local shelters following best practices. Early in her career, she worked with animal control in the Atlanta area, coming up with criteria for euthanasia to clear space for the constant influx of animals—and she would have liked recourse to an alternative.

Dr. Kristin M. Haas, Vermont state veterinarian, said enforcement of state regulations on pet importation can be difficult, particularly for out-of-state operations. One approach is outreach.

"You feel like you're making progress. You get these laws passed, for instance, and you establish relationships with people," Dr. Haas said. "And then you hear of a situation where some less-than-stellar practices are going on in your own state."

In Connecticut, a new law mandates that anyone who brings dogs or cats into the state for sale, adoption, or transfer in exchange for any fee or other consideration must register as an animal importer; arrange for an in-state veterinary examination to occur before sale, adoption, or transfer of the animals; and provide prior notice to authorities of transfer events in public venues. The provisions do not apply to importation of dogs and cats for sale to pet shops, but pet shops fall under licensing regulations.

Dr. Arnold L. Goldman, owner of Canton Animal Hospital in Canton, Conn., helped to develop and promote the legislation as a Connecticut VMA board member. In recent years, board members started seeing heartworm infection and other health problems in rescue dogs from out of state. They concluded that more oversight was necessary for importation of rescue animals for adoption.

Dr. Goldman also believes that the increase in adoption of out-of-state dogs means less adoption of Connecticut dogs. Local shelters do have a substantial proportion of pit bull-type dogs that might be in relatively low demand locally, he said, but the shelters also have many other types of dogs—including various small and mixed-breed dogs. The National Federation of Humane Societies maintains that importation of rescue animals helps meet the demand for specific dog breeds and sizes.

The long-term goal in every state should be to end the unintentional reproduction of companion animals, Dr. Goldman continued.

"Connecticut has done an excellent job of getting the public educated regarding spay and neuter, and we have many low-cost programs to accomplish that. We've also done a good job of getting our strays off the street," Dr. Goldman said. "I believe each state must solve its problem within its borders to have any meaningful national impact on shelter surrender and euthanasia."

Dr. Mary J. Lis, Connecticut state veterinarian, said the Connecticut Department of Agriculture supported the new law on animal importers.

"I feel that this is going in the right direction to protect all the parties involved, especially the dogs and their new adoptive families," Dr. Lis said.

The agriculture department is reaching out to rescue operations to begin implementing the law, she said.  

Proper avenues

Dr. Smith-Blackmore of the ARL believes that transport programs are improving over time as participants seek to do better. She thinks attempts to prohibit animal transport entirely would only drive programs underground.  

"What we need to do is provide proper avenues and proper guidance so that it can be done as well as possible," Dr. Smith-Blackmore said.