Saturday, May 18, 2024
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The Kitten Apocalypse is Coming, Pause TNR and Prepare

Cute tabby kittens.
Cute tabby kittens.

In short, the answer is “no” to TNR and any regular spays or neuters that aren’t considered medically necessary or lifesaving. The topic was discussed in a recent webinar hosted by Maddie’s Fund titled “Spay/Neuter in the COVID Era” and included some of the US leaders in shelter medicine, TNR and rescue, and developing and implementing no-kill policies:

  • Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DABVP, Fran Marino Endowed Professor of Shelter Medicine Education @Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program @ University of Florida
  • Aimee St. Arnaud, Director of National Veterinary Programs @Best Friends Animal Society
  • Staci Cannon, MPH, DACVPM, DABVP, Medical Director @Metro Animal Care and Control, Nashville, TN
  • Kate Hurley, DVM, MPVM, Director, Koret Shelter Medicine Program, UC Davis
  • Sharon Harvey, President and CEO, Cleveland Animal Protective League

It’s going to be a long kitten season because we know that every unspayed female cat out there is either pregnant right now or will be soon, and we can’t do anything about that right now—but the sooner we minimize contact with others the sooner we “flatten the curve”, stay healthy and get back to work, and there are plenty of things we can do to not only prepare for when TNR can start up again, but also to make all the things we do now even better.

While we who are on the front lines of helping cats and giving them the best life possible know that step one is always a spay or neuter which we consider an important lifesaving measure. It actively prevents the suffering of unwanted kittens, and overburdened mother cats and fighting tomcats who contract FIV, debilitating injuries and deadly infections in their mating activities. But TNR, when you come down to it, is still just a regular spay or neuter, and only one part of a much larger process.

While veterinarians are considered essential businesses and permitted to remain open during the current shutdown for social isolation requirements, they are limiting themselves to only essential services on recommendation from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other national and international veterinary and animal welfare organizations.

This decision is both to protect the health of the veterinary staff and the clients who would visit the clinic, and to conserve the use of personal protection equipment (PPE) and medical supplies that are in short supply and might be needed for human treatment.

Along with wellness visits, annual vaccines and nail trims, regular spays and neuters are considered “non-essential” because they are not lifesaving procedures. In addition, each surgery, especially a spay, takes a large amount of medical and sterile resources, and it’s nearly impossible to do while maintaining a preferred distance of six feet from others, especially in a high-volume clinic.

A spay that would be considered “essential” is not a “regular” spay, involving conditions such as pyometra, vaginal prolapse, and a difficult birth, all of which are life-threatening, and would be performed because the time and effort to maintain social distancing and management of equipment and supplies could be reasonably achieved for a single spay and worth it to save a life.

Keep the downtime as brief as possible, keep everyone safe

Dr. Levy remarked, “We are fully cognizant that this comes at the beginning of kitten season, it couldn’t be a worse time of year,” but following the distancing requirements will help keep the downtime as short as possible, with indicators pointing to the beginning of June to resume. She quoted Ellen Jefferson of Austin Pets Alive, saying that in order to be able to save more animals we need keep our organizations functioning and our staff and volunteers safe, so that everyone and everything is ready to go when the pandemic is over and we need to hit the streets.

“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,” Levy continued.

Aimee St. Arnaud agreed and added, “We’ve been walking in the field of ‘flattening the kitten curve’ for so long that…watching that [number] rise has me filled with anxiety.… The joke in our field has been that a lot of us do this because we like animals better than people, but I think it’s at a time like this that we realize that without our people we can’t do this.” She went on to say that even though we’ll have high numbers when we get back to TNR, “we’ve solved this before, we are a field of innovators, and this is our time to really innovate.”

Dr. Hurley reminded us that even though it’s our goal, “we have never been able to take in all the cats”, maintaining many in their community homes with caretakers. We will be doing the same thing now, and only missing two months of spay/neuter surgeries before we can start up again.

In response to a question about how far into the future to cancel clinics Dr. Levy suggested canceling them all through May and starting over with high priority surgeries in June and working from there.

Other considerations in rescue and adoption

While the definition of “essential” can change from one situation to the next, procedures that are “non-essential” are pretty clear because they are not emergency lifesaving procedures where an animal would suffer, die, or be permanently disabled without intervention.

Dr. Hurley described essential procedures as “things you’d run to the emergency vet for in the middle of the night”. A pet or community cat that truly needed medical care should get that care.

Many states have mandates that pets must be spayed or neutered before adoption and many shelters and rescues practice that even without a mandate, yet even those spays and neuters are considered non-essential, meaning unaltered pets would be adopted out with some sort of assurance of return for surgery.

It’s a difficult subject and many remember the days without pediatric spay and neuter that came before sexual maturity, when shelters handed out spay and neuter certificates but no one returned for the surgeries. However, several speakers remarked that when thousands of pets were adopted out with surgery certificates around Hurricane Harvey, for instance, they found when pursuing the adopters after the clinics were back in operation that most of the families who had adopted had already spayed or neutered their adopted pet with their own veterinarian. For now, this is recommended as the best course to take rather than shelters and rescues holding onto unaltered pets, or worse yet, consider euthanizing for space.

The mandate means any pet that’s still intact could not be legally adopted in those states, and yet shelters and rescues need to free up space for the regular flow of animals coming in and the increased flow after this pause in regular spay and neuter. Some states have already lifted the mandate and the speakers recommended talking to legislators about temporarily lifting it in other states and letting animals be adopted still intact.

While annual vaccines are not an urgent need, kitten and puppy vaccine regimens are different in building a healthy immunity before going to an adoptive home. Dr. Hurley offered some guidelines. “For vaccinations, routine revaccination of adult animals should be deferred while stay at home orders are in place. The only exception may be for puppies and kittens—even here, encourage people to reduce risk by not having those pets out and about in public where they may be exposed to parvo or panleukopenia. Where vaccines are necessary to mitigate risk for puppies or kittens where there is a risk of exposure (e.g. because the foster parent works in a high risk environment like a shelter and may bring illness home), ideally vaccination is provided either to be administered by the trained foster parent, or at any rate while maintaining social distance.”

While waiting to resume regular operations, assess and plan needed changes

All the speakers suggested updating procedures, reorganizing space, researching grants and other activities that you never seem to have time for otherwise. Outreach into the community where the need is great for rescue to organize people who would trap and transport and even foster will be critical for startup in a few months and also for the future. Creating brief outreach and training videos to share on social media keeps your organization top of mind for people who will find they need your organization when the stay at home order lifts.

Most reports and documents seem to point to June 1 as the date to restart.

You can watch the entire webinar for even more information. The webcast is now available to view on demand via this link:


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