Managing Canine Respiratory Disease in Your Facility

Managing Canine Respiratory Disease
in Your Facility

By Joan Nieman

An outbreak of canine respiratory disease in your boarding or daycare facility could kill your revenues and your reputation. How well prepared are you to defend your business?

It’s inevitable. Sooner or later – probably sooner – anyone who operates a boarding facility or doggy daycare will face the challenges of an outbreak of canine respiratory illness. Poorly handled canine respiratory disease can severely damage your reputation, hammer your revenues, and undermine your business for years to come. That’s why it’s essential to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

The World Has Changed
Kennel operators have coped with occasional outbreaks of canine cough for decades, quietly dealing with the seasonal occurrence of a handful of coughing dogs. In the past few years, outbreaks of serious illness are becoming more widespread and frequent.

Why? Part of the reason is that dogs are socializing more than ever… and not just in our well-managed doggy daycare programs. Dog parks have popped up in many communities, and dog-friendly events are at an all-time high. With more socialization comes more opportunities for transmission of disease – and we know that many of those dog park pets don’t have the vaccinations we require of our guests.

Add to that the emergence of canine influenza. When this dangerous new respiratory illness appeared in 2005, no dogs had immunity, and it spread through local populations like wildfire. Yes, we now have a vaccine that can reduce the impact of the disease, but many pet parents don’t bother with a vaccination that isn’t required.

As if these two factors aren’t difficult enough, they are overlaid with the power of social media. Today, a client angry about a coughing dog can rant to the world via Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and any other site that she chooses that “you made my dog sick” with “poor sanitation practices.”

So what’s a good manager to do? Based on our experience dealing with outbreaks in many different locations across the U.S., you need a two-pronged strategy. First, create a detailed plan for identifying and handling an outbreak in your facility – and make sure everyone on your staff understands it; and second, make a commitment to communicate honestly with your customers about this disease.

Managing the Outbreak
If there is an outbreak of canine respiratory illness in your community, it’s almost impossible to prevent it from reaching into your facility, but the following protocols can help mitigate the spread.

  1. Monitor for signs of trouble. Be alert for signs of an outbreak at all times, but especially during busy season. If you receive reports of cough in five dogs within a one-week period, you are likely in the early stages of an epidemic.
  2. Start a log. Keep track of all the dogs that have developed symptoms – both those that have gone home and those in-house – with the dates they started coughing. This will help you assess the scope of the outbreak and determine when it is winding down.
  3. Isolate and separate. If you have the space, put incoming pets into a separate building or a separate area. It’s not enough just to isolate dogs that are coughing. Because the incubation period can be as long as a week, any dog that was in-house while the coughing dogs were boarding has already been exposed.
  4. Assign separate staff. To avoid cross-contamination, it’s essential that you assign different staff members to care for the healthy pets and the exposed pets. Hand-washing isn’t enough; the infection can be carried into the “clean area” on shoes and clothing.
  5. Partner with a local vet. If in-house dogs start coughing, it’s important to have them seen by a veterinarian. As soon as you suspect a problem, make arrangements with a local animal hospital or veterinarian who can see the coughing pets right away, take throat swabs to test for canine influenza, and prescribe the needed medications.
  6. Turn away coughers and carriers. For the welfare of all the pets in your care, it is wise to screen pets at check-in for cough or other symptoms of illness. We also make it a practice to turn away dogs that have been at another boarding facility during the prior two weeks. In the long run, it’s better to upset one client than to expose many dogs to illness.
  7. Intensify cleaning procedures. Cleaning and disinfecting should be enhanced, but avoid using high-powered sprayers because blasting water can spread the virus into the air. (We use a Wysiwash and a fogger.) In addition, open all the doors and windows to exchange the air in the facility as much as possible. If you have the ability and weather permits, keep pets outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine as much as possible.

Managing the Customer
Even when you follow all of these steps carefully, sometimes an outbreak is so widespread, there is little you can do to make a difference. Last summer, there was a pandemic in the mid-Atlantic region. It began in April with a few cases, and then seemed to go away only to return during peak summer boarding season. Some operators closed their doors for a week or two in an effort to stop the spread only to face another round of coughing dogs when they reopened.

For many, the most difficult part of the crisis was not managing the sick dogs; it was managing customer expectations and perceptions. Clients – even reasonable clients with whom you have a long relationship – will assume that you must have done something wrong if their dogs become ill during or right after a boarding stay. Those angry and frightened pet owners will be quick to vent their frustration and fears via social media.

It’s important to be forthcoming about the situation without creating a panic.

  1. Be honest. If you try to cover up the fact that you have cases of canine respiratory illness, you only increase the likelihood of a backlash of customer outrage and will find your facility being bashed on review sites. It’s better to be transparent about what is going on.
  2. Notify incoming customers. Call anyone scheduled to board a pet in the upcoming week and advise them that a few boarding pets have developed canine cough recently. If your customers feel that you have been transparent and allowed them to make the choice, you have honesty in your favor should their pets become ill later.
  3. Follow up with other recent boarders. It will help you assess the magnitude of the problem if you contact every customer who has picked up a boarding dog within the last few days. Treat it as a routine follow-up call, but if you learn that a dog is coughing, urge the owner to seek veterinary care.
  4. Coach employees on what to say. Your staff can help avoid panic with the language they use. Have them assure customers that you are doing everything possible to safeguard the pets in your care and tell them about the protocols you have in place to reduce the spread of the illness. Teach them to equate canine respiratory illness to colds and flu in people and to talk about “doggy cough and cold season.”

Yes, some customers will still be angry, but honesty will strengthen your relationship with the majority of pet parents and will improve the likelihood that they will return to your business once their pet has recovered.

Next Steps for Our Industry
As an industry, one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves is to educate the public about canine respiratory disease so they understand what it is and how it is transmitted. People don’t think twice about their child coming home from school or daycare coughing and sneezing, yet they will panic if their dog develops the same symptoms. We need to teach our customers that what is happening to their pets is like kids’ catching a cold at school.

We also need to work harder to eliminate the term “kennel cough.” No wonder pet owners blame us for their pets’ illness! They don’t understand that their dogs can “catch a cold” anywhere there are other dogs – not just at a boarding kennel but at the dog park, a community event, or even on a walk around the neighborhood.

Finally, as an industry, it may be time for us to require vaccination against canine influenza just as we do for bordetella. While it won’t eliminate every case, it will reduce the severity of illness for the dogs that get sick, as well as the likelihood of an epidemic within our walls.

Joan Nieman, Vice President of Operations for Best Friends Pet Care, has more than 30 years of experience in the pet care industry. Prior to joining Best Friends in 1994, she owned and operated The Pet Resort in Oklahoma for a decade. Over the years, Nieman has been active in pet care industry associations, with a special interest in helping to define and establish industry-wide standards.

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