Balancing the Two Ninety Percentiles in Human and Animal Welfare: 90% Social Distance with 90%+ Shelter Lifesaving

By Dr. Ellen Jefferson

Dr. Ellen Jefferson | March 30th, 2020

One community after another is being shut down by government officials and it probably won’t be long before the entire country is operating under ‘shelter in place’ orders. Animal shelters are largely being considered one of the few industries allowed to continue operating as ‘essential services’, no doubt due to the efforts of animal welfare organizations who are prioritizing lifesaving. While this gives us a little less heartburn about lives needlessly lost due to government-funded agencies having to euthanize all their sheltered animals in a quick facility shutdown, it does leave us with a lot of questions about what we are supposed to do.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put companion animal welfare in a conflicted position. Under normal operating conditions, the lifesaving efforts that have moved this country from killing millions and millions of dogs and cats each year to around one million last year, relies on people visiting shelters to save lives in the same quantity as the animals who enter shelters (ie A LOT). Now, because of the need for true social distancing, shelters have to change the way we operate.

At American Pets Alive! we believe and practice that every pet who enters a shelter should receive urgent, individualized treatment and care, with the goal of a live outcome.

This remains true throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. There may be a certain, small percentage of animals for which there are no immediate live outcome options, including dogs with known histories of causing harm to people or animals who may pose a risk to public safety as well as pets with serious medical issues that shelter does not currently have the financial resources to treat. In this pandemic, we need to take the same approach and stand resolute that, from here forward, our activities must reach a 90% reduction in social contact to save people from unnecessary harm while also ensuring that over 90% of pets entering government-funded shelters live.

Let’s start with where the human 90% number comes from: The University of Texas came out with this study last week that details the effect of decreasing social activity by 0%, 50%, 75% and 90% on hospitalizations, ICU cases, ventilators and deaths. The effect is pretty mind-boggling. Notably, the date they calculate as a beginning date in the study is March 23rd when Austin only had a handful of positive cases– now there are hundreds. What that means to me is that while we know there are communities in America that are not yet on shutdown orders, it is highly likely they will be soon, probably in the next week. And unless every community wants to become like NYC, with makeshift morgues in the street because the real ones are too full, we, as animal people, need to take the people effect of our continued work very, very seriously.

Now let’s look at the animal 90%+ number. Shelters are decreasing intake by large percentages, thanks to the NACA statement and AmPA! COVID-19 Preparedness Guide but unfortunately rate of decrease in adoptions and live outcomes is outpacing the rate of decrease in intake. The good news is that there has been an almost 100% increase in the number of animals placed in foster homes in the last two weeks which has prevented an uptick in euthanasia as you’d expect with more intake than outcomes! Now is the time for any community to be able to save well over 90%, a benchmark used in the journey towards becoming a No Kill government-funded or public intake shelter, from here on out. We can only accomplish this if we recognize that ALL lifesaving organizations, whether they are government funded or privately funded, must continue lifesaving operations such as emergency intake in life or death matters, adoptions and transfers (both in and out) while decreasing non-emergency public intake. See phase 2 of our Readiness Checklist. If we don’t, we risk animals becoming “stuck” in the system with no way out alive.

Back to Balancing the Two Ninety Percent Pluses in Human and Animal Welfare: We can accomplish a 90% reduction in social activities, while maintaining the goal of a live outcome for every animal in shelters. By following the National Animal Control Association statement that defines “essential” services and by taking that one step further and running each activity or essential service through a Two-Fold Lifesaving Decision Tree we can ensure that our communities, pets and people, remain safe.

Two-Fold Lifesaving Decision Tree:

  • Does this activity directly or indirectly save the life of this pet?
    • Yes, it directly or indirectly saves the life of this pet. Ok, do you have a protocol in writing for how to accomplish it while decreasing human contact by 90% of your normal protocol?
      • Yes: Great! Do it.
      • No: Write one and hold off on the activity until you have this in writing.
    • No, it does not directly or indirectly save the life of this pet. Ok, then can you accomplish this activity with closer to 100% decrease in human social contact?
      • Yes: Great! Do it.
      • No: Ok, then don’t do it until you can figure out how to do it with closer to 100% decrease in human social contact.

Download your own copy of the Two-Fold Lifesaving Decision Tree here.

American Pets Alive! is here to help with that daunting process of updating protocols and is in the process of updating the AmPA! COVID-19 Shelter Preparedness Guide and Checklist to reflect general guidelines on how your shelter can do it and remain in the business of saving lives. Please join the AmPA! COVID-19 Shelter and Rescue Group Support Facebook page for daily updates and protocol releases.

We will get through this and with your help, the animals will too.


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