Interstate Shipment of Companion Animals for Adoption: A Win-Win Proposition or Something Else?

Last month I was invited by the New England Federation of Humane Societies to participate in a panel discussion about shipping un-owned companion animals from areas of excess to those where potential adopters exist. I was happy to accept the invitation because this is another one of those animal-related practices that superficially appears to be a win-win situation for animals and humans alike. But is that really the case? Much as I dread triggering the wrath of passionate advocates of the practice, the answer to that is no.

My starting point was to view the animals being transported not as just dogs or cats needing homes, but as ecosystems of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and other micro-organisms with which they and their ancestors have coevolved over many generations. At the same time, these fur-covered ecosystems also evolved to survive in their particular climate and physical environment.

That awareness gives rise to the following question regarding the interstate and international transportation of companion animals between shelters or from rescue group to adopter: How will those imported animal-ecosystems mesh with the ones through which the animal passes and in which the animal finally resides?

When I explored this issue with an eye toward answering that question, I found myself confronting the elements of, if you’ll pardon a way overused-to-the-point-of-cliché analogy, a perfect storm looming just over the horizon. Of the multiple factors that are involved, the following eight struck me as most worthy of immediate consideration. Although I discuss each one separately for clarity, all of them function simultaneously and generate many complex variations in the process.

1. Lack of a reliable pre-shelter/rescue history.

Some shelters have areas where people can drop off animals any time of the day or night. Consequently, it is often impossible to say what these animals may have been exposed to that might have ramifications for them as well as for any other animals or humans with whom they may come in contact with later. What little history is available may not be shared with adopters or adopters may forget it. For example, in areas of the Northeast it’s not uncommon for owners to know/remember little about their new animal’s past except “she’s one of the Virginia dogs.”

2. Individual physical, behavioral, and bond trauma to the animals themselves, either before getting into the shelter/rescue system or within it, that may impact the animal’s well-being then or following placement.

Although some people maintain that the end justifies the means, the fact is that young puppies who become part of the transport program may be subjected to a tremendous amount of stress. For example, they may be separated from their mothers, vaccinated, wormed, maybe bathed and dipped, castrated or spayed, shipped, put up for adoption, and be in their new homes by 8-12 weeks of age. Compared to the normal progression or even that which occurs in puppy mills, this subjects these young animals to much more stress.

3. Threat to indigenous domestic and/or wild animal populations posed by pathogens carried by the transported animals for which those native populations may lack immunity.

This is particularly troubling for veterinarians who may be unfamiliar with the pathogens in those areas from where the transported animals originate. Additionally, the lack of a reliable history may make it impossible to determine the animal’s source and that, in turn, can make an accurate and timely diagnosis and treatment of medical problems extremely difficult. Because of this, early signs of transmissible diseases may be missed or misdiagnosed as the infected animal continues to move freely and infect others.

4. Climate change.

Pathogens or parasites carried by southern animals that may not have survived in northern climates in the past might now. For example, there are three diseases transported by ticks: Lyme Disease, erlichiosis, and anaplasmosis. At one time, Lyme disease was only found in the New England states, erlichiosis in the south, and anaplasmosis in the mid-west. Now areas that have one most likely have all three and those areas have greatly expanded because both the ticks that carry the organisms and the organisms themselves can now survive where they couldn’t in the past.

5. Zoonotic potential.

Transported animals could be carrying diseases that are transmissible to humans. A standard statement among epidemiologists regarding the introduction of potentially devastating pathogens is “We are only one plane trip or one import away from a major epidemiological event.” However, although this has been well recognized regarding the transportation of food animals and those for sale, little or noting is being done to address this reality in animals transported for adoption. As increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are being found in the environment, this becomes an even greater threat.

6. The lack of a national animal identification system which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to track an animal and results in delays in identifying the source of any contagious disease.

Unfortunately, the introduction and implementation of such a system has been so mishandled by certain government representatives that the message often gets lost in the public’s desire to kill the messenger. Even more unfortunately, it appears that a lot of animals and humans may need to succumb to fatal or debilitating diseases thanks to delayed tracking before a rational discussion regarding the value of such a system will be possible.

7. The lack of a national human identification system which makes it equally difficult to track diseases any humans may have picked up from these animals.

This is another consequence of a lack of a national healthcare system and one that is already costing us. For example, even though pathologists at individual hospitals were aware that methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was killing patients, the United States is years behind those countries with such ID systems in the quest to control outbreaks and determine their source. Because animals can transmit MRSA to humans as well as vice versa, the concurrent lack of national animal and human ID systems can double the delays inherent in pinning down the source of diseases.

8. Transported animals may attract adopters with “rescueitis” with its related misconceptions and unrealistic expectations. When these animals attract media coverage in which they are portrayed as victims of natural disasters, hoarders, or high-profile abusers, this effect can be heightened.

Some of us are highly neophilic when it comes to companion animals. We just love novelty. The more chaotic and depressing an animal’s history, the more we’re attracted to that animal. That’s fine if we have the knowledge, skill, and commitment to the animal to anticipate and prevent or handle all the behavioral and/or health challenges these animals might embody. But if the novelty causes us to replace concrete knowledge with a “love will conquer all” attitude, both animals and humans could suffer.

Does this mean that we should stop transporting animals all over the country to find homes for them? That’s a question I asked myself time and time again as I prepared for the panel discussion. My conclusion is that the practice is a viable short-term option—provided all those involved are aware of its flaws and limitations and do everything in their power to address these. This would include:

  • scrupulous records-keeping and sharing that information with adopters
  • a reliable identification system at least within the shelter or rescue organizations working with each other
  • fanatic attention to cleanliness of the animals, their housing, and all transport vehicles, both before picking up those animals and after discharging them
  • Keeping all transported animals separated from other animals throughout transport

But I can’t stress the “short-term” too much. Like mass spay and neuter, shipment of unwanted animals treats the effect rather than the cause. Unless an equal amount or more resources are devoted to addressing the cause, this practice ultimately will become part of the problem rather than being part of the solution.

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