Adopting a cat or dog from an animal shelter can be very rewarding because many of these animals are just looking to be loved. Adopting an animal, however, can bring up a lot of questions. If the animal was a stray, it is sometimes impossible to find out its medical history and even when an animal is surrendered by its owner, its known medical history may be sparse.
IN ORDER TO ensure the health of each of the animals in the Loudoun County Animal Shelter and to prevent the spread of disease throughout animals already in the kennels, each new animal is put through an entrance examination.
"We try to get them examined almost as soon as they come through the door," Jen Tavenner, one of the shelter's animal-care technicians, said. "We examine each dog before it goes to the adoption floor."
Besides taking the animal's temperature and giving him a bath, technicians give each animal a vaccine and deworming agent. Cats are given a Feline Rhinotracheitis Calici-Panleukopenia vaccine, a vaccine that prevents feline distemper, parvovirus and upper respiratory disease. Dogs are also given a vaccine for distemper, parvovirus and leptosprosis.
Leptosprosis is a lesser-known disease that can affect humans as well. Dogs contract the disease from licking water that wild animals such as raccoons, possums and deer have urinated in, Dr. Mike Strickland of Leesburg Veterinary Hospital Ltd., said. It can cause kidney and liver failure in both dogs and humans and is most common is dogs who have been living or spending a lot of time in undeveloped areas.
Parvovirus, which was found in several dogs at the county's animal shelter recently, can be fatal in dogs, with three-quarters of the deaths coming from dehydration.
"The biggest fight with parvovirus is to keep [the dogs] hydrated and get them antibiotics," Strickland said. "The intestinal lining sloughs off and opens the blood vessels to infection."
ONE OF THE biggest problems facing animals in Loudoun County is lyme disease, which is spread through ticks that animals pick up when outside.
"We live in an epidemic area for lyme disease," Strickland said. "It is just as common in city atmosphere as a rural one, but we've had an influx of the ticks that cause lyme disease since 2001."
There is a vaccine for lyme disease, but it is not automatically given, only strongly recommended. While lyme disease is easily treatable with antibiotics, it can cause lifetime problems in humans and can be fatal in animals.
"Even though we only have about five cases that die a year, those are what drive our whole recommendation to have the vaccine," Strickland said.
Laura Danis, spokesperson for the Loudoun County Animal Shelter, agreed that lyme disease is a problem for animals in this area.
"We have only had about five cases of lyme disease in the last year," she said, "but we will always treat it because there is such a big success rate with regular antibiotics."
Animals that have other diseases however, might not have the same treatment success. If something abnormal is discovered during the initial examination, Danis said, the shelter works with a veterinarian to determine whether treatment would be the best course of action for the animal.
"The vaccines we use are modified-live vaccines," she said. "So often if a disease has been sitting in an animal, the vaccine will make the symptoms show."
Sick dogs are put into isolation to make sure their disease cannot be spread to the rest of the population.
WHEN LOOKING TO adopt from a shelter, there are easy ways to judge the health of an animal. Take the time to thoroughly examine the animal, Dr. Steve Velling of Ashburn Village Animal Hospital said.
"Look for an animal with a thick, shiny coat," he said. "Hair loss can mean mange in a dog or ringworm in a cat. A sparse coat almost always means something else is going on."
Take the time to examine the eyes, ears and nose of your potential pet, Velling said, keeping an eye out for nasal or eye discharge, which could be a sign of upper respiratory infection or even distemper. The area most overlooked by owners and potential owners is the teeth, Velling said.
"A lot of the pets [at shelters] are middle-aged or older so it is important to check for tooth periodontal disease," he said. "It is indicated by a lot of calcified tarter or a tannish, hardened build-up on the teeth."
The county's animal shelter provides visiting rooms where potential adopters are encouraged to play with the animals, making it easier to notice any physical problems.
"You want to take the time to make sure they are in good shape muscle-wise," Velling said. "Put hands through the coat and against the body. You should feel muscles, not bone."
An extremely thin dog can be an indication of not only malnutrition, but also can indicate intestinal parasites.
"It is important for people to know that intestinal worms or parasites that dogs have, such as roundworm and hookworm, can be given to people," Strickland said. "The worms can lead to severe liver problems."
In addition to physical attributes, it is important to observe how the animal reacts to being played with, held and petted. Animals that are responsive to attention are more likely to be healthy, happy animals who will work well in a home environment.
Each animal at that comes into the county animal shelter is given a behavioral assessment, Danis said.
"We give them two days to settle in and then each of the animals are observed to see if there are any behavioral issues that need to be addressed by one of our specialists," she said.
Each dog and cat is also placed alone in one of the shelter's visiting rooms with household items such as trash cans, couches and shoes, in order to observe how the animal would react without human supervision.
"If animals come to us who are very active or like to jump up on people, one of our animal-care technicians will work with them to modify their behavior before they are adopted," Danis said.
THE MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember is what kind of home environment you have and what you can offer reasonably offer an animal, Dr. Velling said.
"Don't just adopt an animal because it is cute," he said. "Remember that when you adopt, you are going to have that animal for years to come."