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Abundance of dogs at Fairfax County Animal Shelter fuels spread of ‘kennel cough’ illness

Dogs have become plentiful at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter (courtesy FCAS)

Dozens of dogs at Fairfax County’s animal shelter have become infected recently by a respiratory illness known informally as “kennel cough.”

While it’s common to see some canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC) cases, the current wave has been exacerbated by more dogs staying in the shelter for longer periods of time, according to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter (FCAS).

As of yesterday (Thursday), 42 of the 67 dogs in the shelter at 4500 West Ox Road were symptomatic with CIRDC, which has cold-like symptoms such as coughing and a runny nose, Fairfax County Department of Animal Sheltering Director Reasa Currier told FFXnow.

“Every dog has received an individualized treatment plan from our veterinarian and most dogs are improving quickly without the need for medication,” Currier said, describing the symptoms as generally mild.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, CIRDC comes from a variety of viruses and bacteria and is spread through respiratory droplets. Dogs can catch it through close or direct contact with infected animals, sneezing and coughing, and exposure to contaminated objects, such as toys or water bowls.

Kennel cough doesn’t affect humans and other kinds of animals, but it can spread quickly in congregate settings like a shelter, in part because it’s contagious before symptoms appear. The illness also thrives in humidity and is “exacerbated by stress,” FCAS says.

The shelter says it has “robust daily cleaning protocols,” and staff have been “carefully monitoring all dogs for symptoms,” separating those that are symptomatic from the healthy animals.

However, the biggest challenge has been the size of the shelter’s dog population, which neared 100 dogs earlier this summer.

“[There are] more dogs in our care than the staff and facility can adequately support and dogs remaining in our care for extended periods of time,” Currier said. “Our animal population has increased by 25% over the same period last year while the number of days animals spend in our care has also increased as adoptions have slowed.”

Crowding is an issue at shelters nationwide, as some of the over 23 million households that reportedly adopted a pet during the COVID-19 pandemic reevaluate that decision.

The surge in pet surrenders reflects “complex social and economic circumstances,” led by people moving or encountering other housing-related challenges, Currier says. Though 70% of renters in Fairfax County own a pet, many apartments don’t allow pets, place restrictions on the size or breed, or require a fee or deposit.

Increasing costs for veterinary care and pet supplies, particularly food, may also affect someone’s ability to keep their pet, according to Currier.

In the hopes of encouraging adoptions and reducing surrenders, FCAS is promoting its available pets more frequently, reviewing its adoption process to reduce barriers, and providing more resources to pet owners, including free or low-cost vet care and free temporary boarding for those in crisis.

The shelter is also seeking volunteers who can foster large dogs and asking anyone planning to surrender a dog to try to postpone it for at least two more weeks. Owners are advised to ensure their pets are up-to-date on their vaccinations before turning them in.

“There is not one easy solution to the increase in homeless animals, but it is something we must tackle through multipronged efforts,” Currier said. “We appreciate the support we receive from our generous community who keep our pet food pantry stocked and our team of dedicated volunteers and fosters who allow us to continue to provide exceptional, individualized care to every animal who come in the shelter’s doors despite the growing need.”

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