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Debate over shelter vaccinations heads to Council committee

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The City Council Public Health and Human Services Committee will tackle the issue of animal vaccinations at the city’s Town Lake Animal Shelter (TLAC)—a topic that has become particularly sensitive over the last few months—as an outbreak of distemper among the shelter’s dog population has strained the relationship between local animal welfare groups, the Animal Advisory Commission, and shelter administrators.


At the center of the debate is the issue of timely vaccinations. According to Larry Tucker, chair of the Animal Advisory Commission, most veterinarians advise that animals brought into shelters be vaccinated for distemper — a potentially deadly viral disease that effects the skin, brain, eyes, and intestinal and respiratory tracts –upon arrival and should not be moved from the intake room until they have been. The effectiveness of the distemper vaccine drops to 2 percent if a dog has already been exposed to the virus in the general shelter population.


Tucker says TLAC has not been vaccinating sheltered dogs in a timely manner, despite claims that they have been for nearly a decade.


A report generated by Austin Pets Alive!, a local nonprofit group that pulls animals from the shelter to find them homes through off-site adoptions, says that during the distemper outbreak, from January 1 through April 19, APA treated 63 TLAC dogs for distemper, or 16 percent of the total number taken into APA. Of those 63, 13 died as a result of the disease. The report states that of the dogs that were affected by distemper, 13 of those were vaccinated “on time,” or on their first day in the shelter, while 24 were vaccinated “late,” or after the first day. Of the remaining 26, 24 had unknown intake dates and two may have had the disease before admission.


The second half of the report focuses on the height of outbreak, in April, and shows that of the 55 total dogs APA pulled out of the shelter during that time, six had received no intake vaccines for distemper, 16 had received vaccines late, and 33 had received vaccines on time.


“Vaccination is a basic function of shelter medicine,” Tucker told In Fact Daily. “Once a dog or cat moves out of the intake area and into the other parts of the shelter, it’s already been exposed to diseases.”


At a meeting of the Public Health and Human Services Committee held March 31, TLAC Director Dorinda Pulliam told members of the committee that the shelter was increasing its numbers of vaccinated animals on intake through changes in protocol but that 100 percent vaccination rates would never be possible.


“We’ve increased our veterinary intake capacity,” she said, “which should get us to a position where we can vaccinate animals while they’re still in the holding area. And that’s usually within the first two hours.


“We will continue to have animals that are not vaccinated because of our veterinary protocol. For medical reasons, because they’re too young, or because of aggression. We’re never going to have 100 percent of the animals vaccinated, but decreasing the age limits and changing some of the protocol will expand that pool of animals that are vaccinated. And that’s our goal, to be continually expanding that pool. I think we’re running about 82 percent right now.”


Pulliam said that when the shelter increases its veterinary intake capacity, the vaccination of aggressive animals will be a “two-man function,” making the process easier and safer and raising the number of animals that are vaccinated upon intake.


Pulliam did not return repeated calls for comments from In Fact Daily.


That’s all fine and good, Larry Tucker told In Fact Daily, but it doesn’t explain why Pulliam and TLAC haven’t provided their own official report on vaccination rates at the shelter to the commission, a report he said he requested in March. That reluctance has raised the ire of animal rights activists and the concern of at least one City Council member.


“It’s ridiculous at this point,” said Tucker. “They can’t produce a simple report on shelter medicine. Either the report is being hidden or the shelter director is simply incompetent and should not be in charge.”


“We are disappointed to say the least, if not furious,” lawyer and Central Texas Animal Alliance Board Member Lorri Michel told In Fact Daily. She said that she and fellow attorney Bill Aleshire are “looking into what remedies might be available.”


Aleshire called the vaccination issue “outrageous and potentially criminal.” He said he is currently researching what legal means might be available to change TLAC’s vaccination protocols. “It’s unlikely they would have had so many cases of distemper,” he said, “had they followed proper shelter standards.”


Council Member Laura Morrison, who is on the Public Health and Human Services Committee, said, “There’s a lot of concerns that we’re getting vaccinations done properly.” She shares Tucker’s concerns about the TLAC report. “The problem we’re having is being able to get the information we need to be monitoring and make sure things are being done properly,” she said.


When asked if she thought it strange that requested information hadn’t been provided to city staff or Council members, Morrison said, “It’s a concern, and we’ll be talking about it (today). A request has been made from Council to staff to provide some reports, and I’m expecting to see something at the meeting.”

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