“Canine flu is taking out shelters left and right,” Sarah Barnett, ACCT Philly’s executive director, said in an interview with WHYY’s “Studio 2.”
Other U.S. shelters, Barnett noted, have been forced into month-long closure. She said that would be the case for ACCT Philly in an ideal world.
But options are limited. As the city’s only open-intake animal shelter, ACCT takes in around 400 dogs each month.
“These are dogs that are not always in great shape,” says Executive Director Sarah Barnett. “They need us. We’re their last resort.”
To keep incoming dogs from becoming ill, ACCT plans to set up a temporary quarantine space for its exposed population to live until they are cleared of the virus, which can take up to a month.
The “shelter within a shelter,” Barnett explained, can only accommodate 50 dogs. As of Thursday, 120 dogs were on site.
More than 70 dogs need placement, whether via adoption or foster care, by Monday, April 24.
Next week, ACCT will move to emergency intake only for two days to move the dogs and clean the building. Afterward, the shelter aims to resume normal operations.
The decision was made in consultation with national disease control experts, including the University of Florida’s shelter medicine disease expert, the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, and the University of Penn Shelter Medicine program.
Now battling dueling respiratory viruses, ACCT urgently seeks dog-free foster homes that can host a large dog for a month. As an incentive, the shelter is offering $400 gift cards to fosters at the end of that time period. Fosters will be supplied with a dog crate, harness, leash, and food.
From Thursday, April 20, through Sunday, April 23, adoption fees at ACCT will be waived for dogs over 40 pounds. Dogs are fully vaccinated, microchipped, and spayed/neutered. Adopters will also receive a free bag of dog food, a free vet exam, a voucher for $250 of vet services, an offer for discounted pet insurance, and virtual dog training.
How we got here
Before the dog flu reared its head, ACCT Philly was among many animal rescues contending with a shortage of adopters and fosters.
At the onset of the pandemic, when COVID-19 prompted citywide lockdowns, adoptions and fosters saw a welcome boost. Since then, the numbers have returned to pre-pandemic levels. The outbreak comes at a time when more animals, particularly large dogs, are sitting in the shelter or in foster care for longer periods of time.
At ACCT, that means more animals are being timestamped for euthanasia due to space limitations, as opposed to untreatable health or behavioral concerns.
Through 2022, 14,939 animals entered the shelter, with a survival rate of 87%, a few percentage points shy of the 90% benchmark that meets national “no-kill” standards. Through February of this year, ACCT took 1,953 dogs and cats into its care.
As of writing, nine dogs and one cat are timestamped for euthanasia at ACCT. Between the Hunting Avenue shelter and foster homes, ACCT currently has more than 130 dogs and 93 cats available for adoption.
For those unable to foster or adopt, advocates say there is always a need for volunteers and donations, whether monetary or otherwise. Currently, ACCT seeks donations of chest freezers for enrichment storage and two mini refrigerators for vaccines. Hot dogs, spray cheese, and pill pockets are also welcome, to help dogs take their medication.
As shelter staff and volunteers prepare for Monday’s modified “clean break,” the virus outbreak serves as an unwelcome prelude to the summer season, typically the busiest for animal rescues.
Dogs, meanwhile, continue to arrive at ACCT Philly daily.
On Thursday, a line had formed outside the shelter’s North Philadelphia headquarters. Someone joked, “Do you have Taylor Swift tickets?’” Executive Director Barnett recalled. “We’re like, ‘No, we’re just taking in dogs that people can’t care for anymore.’”
Saturdays just got more interesting.