“There is no justification in taking measures directed at companion animals which may compromise their welfare.” – World Organization for Animal Health, in its discussion of the fact that cats and some other companion animals can become infected with SARS-CoV-2 , the virus that causes COVID-19. [link]
A big part of what we do at Alley Cat Allies is helping animal shelters and rescue groups develop and implement lifesaving policies for cats. This work has continued and taken on new dimensions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, including at its worst points, the United States government has been firm that animal services are essential. Even during the most stringent lockdown requirements, care must be provided to animals.
Providing care for animals in the current crisis requires innovation, adaptation, and patience.
Demand for help not only continues but has grown as a result of the serious economic strain surrounding the pandemic since February 2020. Services and programs at most shelters and rescue groups have changed dramatically, but they have not stopped. We are helping these groups and shelters pivot and plow ahead while taking advantage of online tools and the unusual bounty of foster homes.
Along the way, we are helping sculpt many new, unique, and innovative protocols. We want to share them with you along with our recommendations for operating safely and effectively in a shelter environment during the COVID-19 crisis. All of these suggestions can be adjusted to fit your particular team, facility, and circumstances.
Before making any decisions, be sure to consult local health authority guidelines as well as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information on COVID-19.
According to the CDC, “A small number of pet cats and dogs have been reported to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 in several countries, including the United States.” and At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low.” [Link to CDC]
To put in perspective just how low reported companion animal infection rates are, here is some useful data from the USDA. According to USDA by the end of 2020, there had been 54 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in cats and 38 in dogs in the United States. In the same period of time, there were over 21 million cases reported in people in the U.S. Not only are the cat and dog infection rates far, far lower, but companion animals who have tested positive for the virus, the outcomes are better than for humans. The CDC indicates that “most only had mild illness and fully recovered.” [Link to CDC]
Re-Aligning Priorities During the Pandemic
These are not ordinary times. In the following two sections, we will talk about ways to increase COVID-19 public safety and social distancing in your facility, but this first section is about the top-line community needs of your shelter and which services make sense to continue, expand, or curtail.
As things change quickly in the current environment, you may well need to re-evaluate periodically and respond and react to sudden shifts in needs and regulations in your jurisdiction. In addition to the pandemic, we have hurricanes in the south and fires in the west and all manner of other natural disasters occurring.
Eliminate Non-Essential Animal Intake
Shelter experts strongly recommend that during COVID-19, animal control agencies eliminate shelter intake in all but the most pressing cases involving sick or injured cats. Taking this to heart, most shelters moved animals that were in their facilities into foster care at the start of the pandemic and have kept up with this approach.
The benefits of this protocol in animal care and shelter function have led many shelter directors to begin exploring how to continue with a “minimal housing of animals” approach permanently after the pandemic ends.
Even prior to the pandemic, Alley Cat Allies has advocated to never impound cats. Firstly, community cats should never be brought to a shelter unless they will be spayed and neutered, vaccinated, eartipped, and returned to their outdoor homes through a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) or Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR) program. Eartipped cats should not be brought into the shelter either, as they have already been spayed or neutered through TNR. The only exception to the “no impounding” recommendation is if the cat is sick or injured and will receive treatment.
There are several points to make about socialized cats staying in foster care, going home to home rather than being impounded in the shelter. That has been the best practice for several years now.
We also launched our Leave Them Be® campaign to ensure young kittens found outdoors are not taken from their mother cats. Neonatal kittens, or kittens younger than 4 weeks old, need round-the-clock care. Impounding these kittens puts strain both on precious shelter resources and on the kittens’ wellbeing. Their mother is their best caretaker until they are 2 months old and at least two pounds—when they can be safely spayed and neutered. Learn more at alleycat.org/LeaveThemBe.
Educate & Support Pet Owners and Community Cat Caregivers
The COVID-19 crisis is continuing to upend many people’s lives. It’s important that pet owners and community cat caregivers in your community know how to ensure their animals get the proper care should they become sick or otherwise indisposed. Share our resources:
With a plan in place, we can prioritize Keeping Families TogetherTM and keep animals out of shelters and in their homes and colonies where they belong. While the pandemic has gone on for more than half the year, there are families with animals and community cat caregivers who are out of jobs and facing financial hardship. We want to do all that we can to assure these families are not separated from their animals.
Adjust Spay and Neuter Protocols
Alley Cat Allies is aware that spay and neuter services are limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many animal shelters are moving forward with special protocols in place to accommodate.
NACA agrees, stating that “shelters should continue providing live outcomes for sheltered cats and dogs. The lack of immediately available spay and neuter services should not be a reason for shelter euthanasia.”
Many shelters are turning to their foster networks to house animals that have not yet been spayed or neutered. Shelters are also shifting their adoption protocols so unsterilized animals can be adopted with a promise written within the contract that the animal will be spayed or neutered as soon as possible.
Depending on your resources, you can specify within the contract that your shelter or organization will spay or neuter the animal or have the adopter agree to have the animal spayed or neutered on their own. Consider reducing adoption fees to accommodate if implementing the latter.
IMPORTANT: Make sure to keep a list, by date, of spay and neuter surgeries that had to be postponed. Then, you can go down the list in chronological order once spay and neuter services resume. We recommend prioritizing spay and neuter for community cats as part of a TNR program in order to help address the outdoor cat population.
Expand Your Foster Network
With many more people working at home during the pandemic, there has been an increase in public interest in fostering animals in many communities. If you are lucky enough to be in such a community, tap into this groundswell of compassion to ensure animals always have a place to go, especially in the event that more animals are surrendered.
We have tips to grow your foster network in our Shelter Series: Saving Cats and Kittens With a Foster Program.
Social Distancing – Protecting Staff
Preventing overcrowding in the workplace is critical to stop the spread of COVID-19. If it is possible, have employees and volunteers who can telework continue to do so. For staff and volunteers responsible for the care of animals in your facility, there are steps you can take to help them stay safe.
Prepare a staff, volunteer, and facility plan based on the following information tailored to your space and resources. Be sure to share a copy of this plan with each employee and volunteer.
- Rework your clinic’s layout to allow for six feet of distance. That may mean having reception employees sit further apart or moving someone into their own office space.
- Create room occupancy limits. Based on your own discretion about the size of your workplace, determine maximum occupancy for each room in your facility. For example, you may determine that the break room should only be accessed by only two people at a time. Post signs on each doorway detailing the maximum occupancy. Even with these occupancy limits, ask staff not to linger in common areas.
- Separate workplaces and equipment. If possible, each staff member should have their own space and equipment that other staff don’t use. If equipment must be used by multiple staff members, disinfect thoroughly between uses.
- Separate teams and work areas. Some shelters with bigger facilities and multiple teams of staff have designated areas for each team based on their needs. For example, the veterinary staff would stay in the in-shelter clinic and any other space they need while staff from other teams stay out of those areas. If possible, different teams can even use different exits and entrances to prevent as much direct contact as possible.
- Implement daily pre-shift health and fever checks. Some shelters have incorporated health checklists for employees to fill out before coming in for every shift. If the employee or volunteer reports experiencing respiratory symptoms or has a temperature over 100.4°F, have them stay home. These health checks should remain confidential and only seen by HR.
- Require and provide face masks. Consult your local guidelines to determine when and where mask wearing is required. It is best to wear a mask when interacting with other staff members, though not necessary in an isolated work area. Early in the pandemic, there was a shortage of PPE. Luckily, this in not currently the case. Make sure to have an adequate supply on hand as there can occasionally be slowdowns in delivery and distribution systems.
- Set up hand sanitizer stations. Hand sanitizer stations should be set up at each entrance along with signage encouraging people to sanitize their hands before entering.
- Work in shifts. Consider dividing staff into teams that take different shifts to prevent overcrowding and work through potential exposure. E.g., if shift A is exposed and must quarantine, shift B can continue to work with precautions and after thorough cleaning of the space. For volunteers who must enter the shelter, set up a similar policy. Space out volunteer shifts to accommodate social distancing. Adjust the number of people allowed to work in-house each day depending on your space and ability to social distance at least six feet.
- Utilize remote clock-in. Remote clock-in apps allow staff members to punch in from tablets or smartphones with zero contact.
- Clean multiple times a day. All staff should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol before touching refrigerators, microwaves, or any equipment that must be used by multiple people. Common surfaces should be sterilized directly after use. Encourage staff to wash their hands multiple times a day and provide hand sanitizer to each staff member if possible.
- Hold virtual meetings. Even for staff and volunteers in shelter, hold virtual meetings to prevent people from gathering needlessly in one place. When possible, communicate through video conferencing or phone calls rather than in person.
Consider Having Someone Serve as a Safety Monitor
Everyone in the animal welfare field is extremely busy. The animals need us, and that can make it difficult to keep track of the details of COVID-19 safety. To ensure all COVID-19 protocols are implemented and everyone is safe, some shelters have hired or reassigned someone to act as a safety monitor.
A safety monitor keeps an eye on shelter operations and works to ensure that all safety measures are enforced. They may identify where informational signage is needed, take the lead in sanitizing common areas, doorknobs, etc., and advise and remind staff and volunteers of social distancing, mask wearing, and other COVID-19 precautions.
If a Staff Member is Sick with or Exposed to COVID-19
According to CDC guidelines, staff members who test positive for or have symptoms of COVID-19 should quarantine at home for 10 days from the time they received their test results or started experiencing symptoms.
For staff members who were exposed to someone who tested positive for or has symptoms of COVID-19, the CDC recommends quarantining at home for 14 days from the day of exposure.
The CDC states that ill or exposed staff can return to work following quarantine “provided they remain asymptomatic” or they are given clearance by their health care professional or local health care agency.
If a staff member is showing symptoms of or tests positive for COVID-19:
- Inform contacts. Anyone who came in close contact with the ill staff member must be informed, while maintaining confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they can immediately go home and begin quarantine.
- Clean thoroughly. Follow CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting areas sick employees have interacted with. If possible, hang a sign informing others to stay out of the area as it is being cleaned.
Social Distancing – Protecting the Public
Even through the challenges of COVID-19, connecting with the public is still critical and necessary. However, with social distancing in mind, public interactions have had to undergo some adjustments. Here are some of the ways we have seen shelters successfully adapt:
Increase Virtual Services
- Going Fully Virtual. The less time an adopter spends in your facility or a foster caregiver’s home, the better. Many shelters have had great success hosting virtual adoption events that use social media videos and photos to showcase a group of adoptable animals.
- Virtual Adoption Events. These virtual showcases could include highlighting a group of animals—for example, a litter of kittens, all of the longhaired cats in your care, the dogs who have waited longest for a home, etc. If the animals are all in foster homes, engage the foster caregivers to share clips of the animals in-home and make a compilation.
- Virtual Meet and Greets. Once a potential adopter is interested, the next step can be a virtual meet and greet over video conferencing. Make sure the animal gets plenty of on-camera time and discuss the animal’s personality and answer questions in real time.Foster caregivers can also be trained to conduct these calls from their own homes. The added benefit is seeing the animal in a home environment versus a shelter environment, which is especially stressful for cats.
- Virtual Contract and Curbside Pick Up/Drop Off. Once the adopter is certain they want an animal, make sure they can fill out and sign an adoption contract virtually.Then, have a staff member or volunteer provide a contact-free delivery of the animal. Alternatively, have the adopter drive to the shelter or foster home to pick up their new family member through curbside pick-up.
- Virtual Check-Ins. If you normally have home visits before adopting out an animal, consider alternatives that don’t require a staff member or volunteer to enter a home and put themselves at risk. Have adopters agree to follow-up calls and to send photos or even video conference so you can see the animal in her new home.
These requirements can be built into your adoption contract.
When Members of the Public Must Enter Your Facility
For any business that can’t be accomplished virtually or curbside, we recommend these measures:
- Do a health check. Ask people or have them fill out a questionnaire about if they have, have symptoms of, or were recently exposed to someone with COVID-19. If the answer is yes, ask them to come in at least 10 days after their exposure, or have a friend or family member conduct their business for them.
- Have adoptions by appointment only. Rather than allowing people to free roam in the facility during specific hours, most shelters have cut down on foot traffic by setting up adoption appointments. A person interested in adopting an animal contacts the shelter virtually and sets up a one-on-one meet and greet. Then they come into the shelter at a designated time when no or few other potential adopters are in the shelter.
- Reassess and adjust your space. When your shelter is closed to the public or is operating with reduced public access, there may be spaces you can transform to accommodate your current needs. For example, a conference room can become a cat meet and greet room with space for staff and potential adopter to stay six feet apart!
- Ask anyone coming into the facility to wear face masks. Consult your local guidelines on when and where mask wearing is enforced. If you choose to include a policy where all potential adopters wear masks inside the building, hang signs on the walls and doors that detail this policy. Have extra masks on hand to give out if needed.
- Be hands-off with interested adopters. Allowing adopters to spend some alone time with their potential new furry family member always has benefits, but right now the hands-off approach is even more important. Once you have a designated space for meet and greets, encourage staff and volunteers to only stay in the room for short amounts of time.
- Consider a workplace safety shield. A plastic or plexiglass shield or barrier between staff and the public will help keep front desk staff safe.
- Use floor markers. Show people where they should stand and how far apart they should be using floor markers. An easy way to do this is by placing tape on the floor to mark areas where clients can walk and wait and setting decal stickers on the floor at six feet apart to aid social distancing.
- Sanitize thoroughly. Clean any chairs or surfaces touched after the person leaves. Have hand sanitizer stations available for people’s use.
When Adopters Must Enter a Foster Caregiver’s Home
Many foster caregivers are setting up special appointments to have potential adopters meet their chosen animal in person. Make sure these caregivers have the proper protective equipment, like masks, and provide it if they do not.
Encourage foster caregivers to maintain social distancing and consider other measures like having only one person at a time come in to meet the animal. If possible, have the meeting take place in an open-air space.
Always give foster caregivers the option to take the animal to your facility for the meeting and adoption process if they are uncomfortable with an adopter entering their home.
Animal Intake Basics During COVID-19
Though you should take measures to drastically reduce intake, some animals will still need to enter your facility. Here are our suggestions, based on information from the CDC and the experience of animal shelters, to do so safely and effectively:
Ask if the animal was exposed to COVID-19
Based on the guidance of top health experts like the CDC, intake of exposed animals will require a different protocol. Have animal control officers or intake staff ask:
- Has animal has been exposed to a person suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19? According to the CDC, “exposure includes close contact with a known or possibly infected family member or other person (being within six feet of the person, direct contact, sleeping in the same bed, sharing food, kissing, snuggling, or being exposed to sneezes or saliva).
- Has the person seen COVID-19 symptoms in the animal? The CDC states that these include “coughing, breathing difficulty, sneezing, runny eyes or nose, fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, or diarrhea.”
IMPORTANT: When asking these questions, keep in mind that the person may be concerned about the wellbeing of the animal, and whether they will be killed, if they say “yes.” Before asking, assure that you plan to care for the animal even if they are exposed and have special protocols in place to keep all safe.
If the animal is not said to have been exposed to or have symptoms of COVID-19, proceed with your usual triage and PPE. Animals present an extremely limited risk of spreading COVID-19, so there is no need for special precautions.
Utilize curbside drop off or outdoor tents
If a member of the public is dropping off an animal, these measures will protect both them and your team. Have the person wait in their car while a staff member or volunteer takes the animal out of the back of their car. Or, the person can take the animal out themselves and place them on a curb or sidewalk. Stipulate that the animal MUST be in a carrier or humane trap.
Transfer the animal from the person’s trap or carrier to a holding space of your own, then return the trap or carrier to the back of the person’s car or the curb. Have the person fill out any necessary paperwork while still in their car. You can also consider a verbal agreement.
If using outdoor drop-off tents, the person can approach to drop off the animal and fill out paperwork as long as social distancing is maintained, and face masks are worn according to local guidelines.
Make sure staff and volunteers wash their hands before and after touching a person’s carrier.
Consider having a triage space
To be extra safe, you can have a special triage area—outdoors in a tent even—to look over an animal and determine if they have symptoms of COVID-19.
Please note the CDC guideline that “all animals should receive a screening examination from a veterinarian, veterinary technician, or experienced animal care and handling specialist.”
Intaking Animal Exposed to or Symptomatic of COVID-19
First, note that it is not recommended for animals to be routinely tested for COVID-19. Around the world, only a small number of cats, dogs, and other animals were found to have COVID-19 and its symptoms. On top of that, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered low. Direct anyone concerned to learn more in our COVID-19 Guide: You & Your Pet Cat.
As detailed above, ask the person who called animal control or is dropping off the animal if the animal has been exposed to someone who has or is suspected to have COVID-19 before intaking the animal.
If you believe an animal has been exposed to or has COVID-19 symptoms:
- Keep them separated. It is best to have a quarantine space ready just for this purpose. House the animals away from general housing and other animals. If possible, have separate staff and equipment for exposed animals versus the general population. If not possible, increase hygiene and PPE requirements for staff that move between the quarantine space and general housing.
- Quarantine for 14 days. Keep the animals in this space for a mandatory 14-day quarantine while monitoring their condition. DO NOT adopt out or place the animals in a foster home until this quarantine is over.
- Use proper personal protective equipment. Wear PPE including gloves and a face mask at all times when handling the animal. The CDC has in-depth veterinary guidelines on the appropriate PPE to use depending on the situation and the animal’s condition.
- For clarity, use informative signs. Print and place signs on the cages of exposed/sick animals detailing that they were exposed to COVID-19 and what PPE must be utilized. Or, place a larger sign within the isolation space.
- Clean thoroughly. Thoroughly sanitize all surfaces the animal touches before bringing in another patient. Wash hands thoroughly and regularly, or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, during and after handling the animal.
- If possible, separate their veterinary care. If you have more than one in-house veterinarian and it is possible, have one veterinarian examine and treat exposed animals in a separate clinic or space in a clinic. If clinic space must be used by both healthy and exposed animals, clean the space thoroughly and have the veterinarian very carefully wash hands and change PPE after treating an exposed animal.
- Don’t give up on enrichment. For exposed animals in quarantine, shelter enrichment is still important. For example, if a dog has been exposed to COVID-19 but does not have symptoms, she should still be walked to receive the exercise and engagement she needs. Consider having a staff member walk the dog in an area entirely separate from where non-exposed animals are exercised.
The CDC has thorough guidelines on handling sick or exposed animals here.
You can also see our COVID-19 Protocols for Veterinarians for more information.
All frequently-used surfaces should be disinfected multiple times throughout the day. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), COVID-19 is “readily inactivated by disinfectants typically used in animal shelters.”
The CDC has more guidelines on disinfecting surfaces and disposing of waste, including:
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces with an EPA-registered, hospital grade disinfectant.
- Frequently cleaning multiple use areas such as microwaves, fridge handles, toilet handles, bathroom doors, light switches and plates, door handles, etc.
- Laundering scrubs, gowns, blankets, towels, or any other soft item with a detergent or bleach with the warmest water setting possible.
- Washing hands immediately after cleaning.
Let Us Know if You Need Anything
Alley Cat Allies is here to help. We are committed to providing support to those on the front lines saving and improving the lives of cats. Learn more about our COVID-19 response at alleycat.org/Coronavirus.
If you need assistance, advice, or materials, reach out to us at alleycat.org/GetHelp.