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Willmar, Minn., shelter’s cat health program receives good marks during evaluation

Two cats peer through the bars of their kennel in this undated photo at Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar. The shelter has received good marks through an outside review in response to concern to cat overpopulation and respiratory viruses being spread among the shelter’s feline inhabitants. Tribune photo 1 / 2
Dr. Graham Brayshaw, senior veterinarian with the Animal Humane Society of the Twin Cities, uses a swab to collect a sample from an aromatherapy diffuser at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter. The sample, which will be cultured and analyzed for disease-causing organisms, was collected during an evaluation Wednesday of the shelter’s cat health and infection control practices. Tribune photo by Anne Polta 2 / 2

WILLMAR — To Kathie Johnson’s experienced eye, the kennels in the kitten room at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter looked clean, but she wanted to know more about the shelter’s infection control practices.

How often was the room thoroughly cleaned and disinfected? Did the staff wear gowns and latex gloves? Did they change gloves for each kennel?

Infection control for the shelter’s cat population was put under a microscope Wednesday for an evaluation by Johnson, the director of animal care for the Animal Humane Society of the Twin Cities, and Dr. Graham Brayshaw, senior veterinarian with the Animal Humane Society.

Shelter leaders sought the outside review in response to concern about cat overpopulation and respiratory viruses being spread among the shelter’s feline inhabitants.

“We’re looking for some advice,” said Steve Gardner, board chairman for the Humane Society of Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties. “If we’re doing something wrong, we want to know. We want to be able to improve.”

Johnson and Brayshaw will submit a written report in upcoming weeks. But based on their preliminary findings, Hawk Creek Animal Shelter “is a very well-run shelter,” Johnson said Wednesday.

Although diseases cannot be entirely prevented among shelter animals, shelters can develop evidence-based strategies for managing and reducing the risk, she said. “You are on top of current practices. To me that speaks volumes to the quality of care you provide here.”

Accompanied by shelter staff and staff from the South 71 Veterinary Clinic, which provides veterinary services to the shelter, Johnson and Brayshaw spent more than two hours Wednesday inspecting the facility, from the cat colony rooms and isolation areas to the veterinary and surgery suite.

Their focus: infection control practices within cat care.

The shelter has struggled recently with an increase in upper respiratory infections among its cats.

It’s an issue shared by many shelters, Johnson said. “Every time you go to a conference, you hear about upper respiratory infections in shelters and how to address it.”

She and Brayshaw said cats are especially vulnerable because they tend to stay in shelters longer and are adopted at lower rates than dogs.

The shelter setting itself poses a unique challenge to cat health, Johnson said. Many cats who arrive, especially if they are strays, have an unknown health status. Group housing and population turnover can raise the likelihood of spreading disease, which may be unwittingly aided by volunteers and visitors. On top of this, shelter cats are often stressed, further lowering their immunity.

“It’s your cleaning practices, your handling practices and how quickly you move cats in and out. That’s what it comes down to,” Johnson said. “It is herd health vs. what you would do for your individual animals. That’s a huge component of keeping your population healthy.”

More cat adoptions — and public engagement — must be part of the solution too, Brayshaw said. “You have to have a community that wants to adopt.”

Gardner said the shelter’s overall rate of animals claimed or adopted is 82 percent; the national average at open-admission shelters is around 50 percent.

Hawk Creek’s success with cats can be improved, he said. “We have struggled with moving cats through the shelter.”

He hopes a $4,000 ASPCA grant recently awarded to the shelter to increase cat adoptions will help.

Another goal, based on the preliminary results of Wednesday’s evaluation, will be to collect more data to track interventions and outcomes, Gardner said.

He said the board will act on whatever recommendations are issued in Johnson’s and Brayshaw’s report.

“Our animals are too important to all of us not to want the best for them,” he said. “Our protocols are sound and our staff are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We can’t ask for any more than that.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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