The animal welfare movement has greatly improved over the years. In the 1980's approximately 18 million dogs and cats annually died in animal shelters nationwide. Today, that number has decreased to about 4.5 million, and many communities are actually experiencing a shortage of puppies and small dogs. As a result, the last five years have seen a rapid rise in the movement of shelter animals from areas of oversupply to areas of greater demand.
Good things can be said about dog transport. However, critics, including many veterinarians, cite drawbacks - especially in areas of disease transmission and animal health and safety.
Lorna Grande, DVM, is a private practice relief veterinarian. She also teaches in the Veterinary and Animal Sciences Department at the University of Massachusetts and has been affiliated with shelters as a Board member and humane educator for over 30 years.
When it comes to animal importation, "first and foremost I worry about disease transmission," Grande says. "In addition to illnesses such as giardia, distemper, parvo and URI, imported animals are also bringing new diseases into the community. Just a couple of examples: rescuers have imported a blood borne protozoal disease called Leishmaniasis and species of tick borne diseases we rarely see in the Northeast. Another puppy brought in a new strain of rabies. Many of these animals are coming in sick with pneumonia and diarrhea, and there isn't a clearinghouse to monitor them. The Massachusetts Bureau of Animal Health was recently forced to impose Emergency Regulations.
Another big problem is that most of these animals are puppies, puppies traveling long distances from places like Tennessee and Virginia. They can suffer a great deal of stress on the trip. The transporters are often unregulated, so the conditions inside the vehicles may be inadequate. In addition, many of these puppies are coming from stray moms who are probably not vaccinated. Even if the puppies are vaccinated, the stress of the travel can prevent their own immune system from responding properly to the vaccine. Anyone who has gotten sick when they are "run down" knows that stress contributes to disease."
Sara White, DVM, is a shelter veterinarian in New Hampshire. According to White, almost all New Hampshire shelters import puppies because so few litters are born within the state. According to White, New Hampshire shelters don't euthanize dogs for space, and place all of their healthy, treatable and behaviorally sound dogs (for a 75% save rate).
White believes animal transport has a lot of advantages - it fills a need by giving the public what it wants, prevents the sale of pet shop puppies and saves lives. It's a net benefit, believes White, if the imported animals have proper health certificates, behavior assessments, are spayed and neutered prior to placement and are provided proper health care at both ends. But there are worries. "Veterinarians in New Hampshire are not happy, mostly because of medical concerns. They fear the entry of illnesses that aren't normally seen here, like tick borne diseases from the south. The concern is that if the vets aren't used to seeing such diseases, they won't know what they're looking at or how to treat it. I personally haven't seen anything out of the ordinary in my shelter. I've seen more behavior problems with under-socialized dogs than medical problems. I do think there is another risk. If you can get cute puppies, they are a lot simpler to place and more fun to work with than bratty adolescents from the community shelters, but that's not fair to the local animals."
Dr. Grande couldn't agree more. She believes cute and cuddly imports darn near mean a death sentence for the big, old and rowdy adolescent dogs in her state's municipal shelters. "If people would put the same amount of time, energy and resources into saving animals in Massachusetts that they do in trucking animals from down south, our own community animals could be saved. If you are in a community where there are animals that need shelter, you're turning your back on those animals if you're importing," argues Grande. "For people like me who have worked for thirty years to end pet overpopulation, to have basically succeeded when it comes to dogs - it's hard to see dogs imported. Wasn't the goal to put ourselves out of business? We used to be people finding homes for dogs. Now we're finding dogs for homes."
In California, dog transport takes a slightly different form. Here, most transport takes place within the state, from originating shelters in Central Valley communities like Merced, Madera, or Sacramento, to shelters in the Bay Area, a distance of 50 to 200 miles. The various Bay Area shelters that draw animals from the Central Valley use their own staff and vehicles to select and transport the animals, and they establish on-going relationships with the source shelters and communities.
Dr. Kate Hurley, Director of the University of California Davis Shelter Medicine Program, is one of the nation's leading shelter medicine experts and someone who has directly worked with several of California's importing and exporting shelters.
"Moving shelter animals from places of few resources and adopters to places with lots of resources and adopters can be great for the animals. What concerns and frustrates me is that the shelters that need the most help with transfers are the same shelters that have the fewest resources for disease prevention."
Hurley believes there needs to be much more awareness of infectious disease issues on the part of both source and receiving shelters, and many more resources given to source shelters to minimize risks and make the whole process more positive.
"We need to find a way to support the disease prevention efforts of source shelters during the animal's crucial first week in the shelter. If we don't, there's a good chance that a pet will be exposed to a serious illness as soon as he comes in. The receiving shelter will put time and expense into transporting that animal, time and expense into quarantining him, and then he'll come down with something like parvo. You've transported parvo or other diseases into a shelter that didn't have these conditions before, gone to tremendous effort and expense, and the whole cycle could have been avoided with a $2 vaccination on intake."
Hurley relates the story of one shelter's ongoing attempt to alleviate this kind of situation. "The receiving shelter provides vaccines and helps with shelter clean up. However, even these efforts may not be enough if the source shelter remains unable to isolate sick dogs due to lack of space. Significant facility improvement at the source shelter and improved vaccination practices within the source community may be required to really solve the problem. I know that seems like a lot to put into "someone else's shelter." However, if our communities are benefiting from "someone else's dogs," I think it makes sense to think about ways we can improve conditions for that shelter; it will benefit the shelter and adopters on the receiving end, as well as many sweet, adoptable dogs that - by a twist of fate - find themselves in a less well-to-do community.
If shelters are going to bring outside animals into their facility, they have to expect to get diseases from time to time, from nuisance infections such as giardia to severe or fatal illness such as parvo and distemper. It seems unfair to transfer a dog and make him go through the stress of travel, only to euthanize him if he comes down with something treatable. In order to avoid this, receiving shelters need to have adequate veterinary resources and isolation rooms to quarantine the animals. Those that are planning a new shelter and anticipate having a transport program need to design their shelters with this in mind. For example, if a truck full of puppies comes in and one of them is diagnosed with parvo, the shelter will need a safe space to quarantine the exposed dogs for fourteen days. Otherwise, either the exposed puppies may need to be euthanized, or the rest of the shelter population will be put at serious risk."
Without question, there are a lot of legitimate veterinary issues to work out with dog transport. But in reality, this activity is probably just a temporary phenomenon. Notes Hurley, "Bay Area shelters seem to be traveling farther and farther to find pups and small dogs - there's a lot more competition for them now. At this point, virtually all the smaller breeds and puppies from our local Sacramento shelters, and even the great majority of sweet, healthy adult dogs - with the exception of pit bulls, are either adopted locally, rescued, or transferred to another shelter."
With more spay/neuter programs, model adoption programs and the success of current transport programs, shelters throughout the country will probably get the dog - or at least the small dog and puppy surplus - under control within a few years. At that point, a whole new set of questions will arise.
If shelters insist on having small dogs and puppies to satisfy demand, where will they get them? Where will the community get them - from backyard breeders, pet stores, reputable breeders, third world countries? Should shelters fight these sources?
If temperament, breed, age or size makes the majority of shelter dogs unsuitable or unappealing for most adopters, what should shelters do with these dogs? Will shelters be able to persuade their communities to adopt older dogs or dogs who are less than perfect? Will they want to even try? What will we do if the majority of dogs in shelters are pit bulls with iffy personalities?
Will future shelters have cat adoption programs only? Would that be bad?
If animal shelters really don't want to put themselves out of business, what do they want to do? That is the question of the century.
Rich Avanzino, Maddie's Fund President, offers his own opinion on this topic in his editorial, Dog Transport.
PetSmart Charities Rescue Waggin'
One of the most active dog transportation programs is the PetSmart Charities Rescue Waggin'. Piloted in 2004, the Rescue Waggin' currently travels throughout the Midwest and California, and expects to transport as many as 12,000 dogs per year. The Rescue Waggin' has gone to great lengths to provide optimal care, comfort and safety for its canine passengers. Transport teams trained in animal first aid and pet care monitor the dogs during transport via closed circuit video. Inside, the dogs are provided with climate-controlled individual quarters, fresh water, and soothing music to help them relax.
As part of the Rescue Waggin' program, PETSMART Charities helps source shelters improve their adoption and spay/neuter programs.