Specialized Care All in Day’s Work at Animal Shelter in Alexandria

Specialized Care All in Day’s Work at Animal Shelter in Alexandria

Some animals share offices with staff, undergo needed surgeries on site

A 10-month-old cream-colored Himalayan cat transferred to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA) was friendly and beautiful – but not quite ready for adoption. The AWLA’s veterinary team discovered that, besides needing to be spayed, Lyla was experiencing an umbilical hernia that would require surgery.
Fluffy takes over the computer chair in an AWLA office. Animals who need special attention may spend some time with staffers in their offices.


Lyla didn’t have to go far to get the help she needed. She was moved to a specially outfitted van known as Waggin’ Wheels now located on the AWLA grounds, where both surgeries were carried out by the AWLA’s staff veterinarian with the assistance of staff technicians. The surgeries took place in early March, just a month shy of the van’s first anniversary.

“We’re now doing a large percentage of our surgeries in house – routine procedures such as spay/neuter and dental cleanings whenever they’re needed – and also some of the more complex procedures such as mass removals and hernia repairs,” said AWLA Director of Veterinary and Foster Care Arianne Killen, who oversees the surgery schedule. Other surgery cases continue to be sent to the AWLA’s outside veterinary partners. 

Besides serving as an operating theater, Waggin’ Wheels travels — to events such as the AWLA’s Pets & People Community Wellness Events, providing a safe and well-equipped space for animals to receive vaccinations and other care. And when the van really gets rolling, it will also serve as a portable adoption center, ferrying animals around town to meet potential adopters.

It’s just one way the AWLA goes the extra mile to provide outstanding care for animals. For example, some shelter pets who don’t thrive in kennels or need some extra attention become “office animals,” staying for a time with staff members in their workspaces. Some doze in comfy beds in the corner, while others get a bit more involved. One little dog hopped on a computer keyboard and somehow triggered the audio player to blast “Who Let the Dogs Out” at top volume.

“I can’t imagine a day without an office animal,” said Gina Hardter, AWLA Director of Marketing and Communications, who has been known to occupy her shared office space with as many as six dogs. “Sometimes it’s me who needs a little extra attention, and I just take five minutes and snuggle a puppy. I go right back to work feeling better.”

A nervous brown-and-white terrier mix called Cocoa had a revelation while chilling with Hardter. Cocoa observed with interest Hardter munching on a carrot for lunch. Hardter shared some of it with Cocoa, and in doing so, helped find another way to make Cocoa feel more engaged and comfortable.  

Animals are happiest when they are healthy, and a healthy weight and diet are especially important in the shelter environment, Hardter said. Animals at the AWLA typically receive a balanced mix of wet and dry food twice a day, but those with liver or kidney ailments — or those needing to gain or drop a little weight – receive specially designed meals. Staff pays careful attention to each animal’s food intake, keeping detailed logs, and if an animal refuses food, they will be checked for stomach troubles or painful teeth.

If no explanation for boycotting food is found, the staff looks for other options to stimulate the appetite. When a 10-year-old schnauzer named Maya refused to eat, a staff member brought in chicken-and-gravy dog food from home. Maya scarfed it down. The staff tried a different type of food the next day, and she gobbled it too. “She just had to find out that she liked food,” Hardter said.

Special services provided for AWLA animals extend to support for the animals’ mental health and well-being. Every day, dogs, cats and other animals take part in two rounds of activities that stimulate them both physically and mentally, along with socialization from volunteers. Even smaller animals such as rabbits receive this enrichment, sometimes with clotheslines holding juicy bites of vegetables and fruits hung over their pens. “The first time we hung a veggie line over Phoebe the rabbit’s enclosure she was so delighted,” recalled AWLA Senior Manager of Volunteers and Community Events Echo Keif. “You could see all of her stress melt away.” 


 The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria is a local 501(c)(3) organization that operates the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter, Alexandria's only open-access animal shelter. The AWLA impacts the lives of thousands of animals each year through adoptions and other programs, including a Pet Pantry that last year provided more than 50,000 pounds of pet food and supplies to community members in need. The AWLA also helps Alexandrians with questions about wildlife and other animals in the community. More than half of the AWLA’s budget is composed of donations. More information can be found at AlexandriaAnimals.org.