Animals deserve a healthy start

It seems like winter has missed Santa Fe this year, and although cold and wet weather may decide to show up before April, I can’t help but think about spring and what the change in season means at an animal shelter.

To many people, spring in Santa Fe means wind and the spread of all sorts of things, including germs, which gets

Mary Martin AnimalMD

Mary Martin

me to thinking about vaccination and preventing disease. There’s been a lot of talk about vaccination in the news lately and I thought it might be timely to share some thoughts about what vaccination means in the communities I know best, animal shelters.

Having worked or volunteered in shelters for more than 25 years, I’ve watched the devastating effects of infectious disease in the most vulnerable populations — the young and the old — particularly before shelters automatically vaccinated animals the moment they arrived. I remember the days when a puppy or kitten would have diarrhea and that would bring a cold chill down the spines of anyone who had worked at the shelter for more than a week or so.

Diarrhea could mean parvovirus (panleukopenia in cats) and parvovirus invariably meant death at that time. Those infected animals could get help that could lead to survival but instead, because it can be difficult to control such an infectious disease, euthanasia was the tool shelters used to try and stop its spread. It rarely worked. One case would lead to another and to another and an outbreak like that could be devastating to the shelter population.

Parvo and panleukopenia used to be common in shelters and worse yet, outbreaks of these diseases were just as common and resulted in the deaths of thousands of young animals. Eventually, shelters began to spend the money to vaccinate animals the minute they arrived and veterinarians urged their clients to vaccinate their pets, so the number of unvaccinated pets in the community was much lower than in decades past.

It wasn’t then and it isn’t now cheap for shelters to vaccinate. The shelters had to buy the vaccine, along with the syringes, and have enough staff to vaccinate all the animals. But it was a helluva lot cheaper than dealing with the outbreaks. In addition, shelters began to be very cautious of how young vulnerable animals were housed; isolating the animals as much as possible to give the vaccine time to work before the young animal was potentially exposed to the disease. The isolation had its own set of problems, forcing the animals to forgo socialization at the most important time of a puppy or kitten’s life. No decision is without some consequence and this lack of socialization could result in death, too.

Now we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We know better how to protect young animals from disease without missing the opportunities for human contact. We know the importance of excellent air-handling systems, the value of hand-washing early and often. We know better in general how disease is spread and how it can be controlled.

We see few cases of parvo in our shelter (knock very hard on wood) but under no circumstance do we want to let our guard down. I’ve seen what can happen without vaccine; I’ve seen the devastated owner who cannot afford treatment and opts for financial euthanasia. I’ve seen the beleaguered shelter staff who, in years past, might consider hiding any sign of disease knowing what would happen to that animal or animals.

Proper vaccination under a veterinarian’s supervision is not just a good idea, it will save your pet’s life. Now is the time to make sure your pet is protected. PLEASE see your vet this week. Talk to him or her about the risks and the benefits and protect your pets and the other pets in your community.

Mary Martin is executive director of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and a licensed veterinary technician. Her column appears monthly.