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Worker Safety in the Animal Shelter

Dr. Lila Miller, DVM, Sr. Director, Animal Sciences & Vet Advisor, ASPCA


Zoonosis || Vaccinations || OSHA Regulations || Training


Zoonosis is the term used to describe diseases that can be passed from animals to humans and vice versa. This is an issue of special importance to staff who work in animal shelters because of the unknown background and high incidence of disease in shelter animals. Veterinary staff who work in animal hospitals, zoos and laboratories, for example, know more about the medical history of their patients than shelter workers dealing with large numbers of stray animals on a daily basis. There are at least 200 known zoonotic diseases, and more are being continually added to the list. Fortunately for most shelter workers dealing mainly with dogs and cats, the list of zoonotic diseases to be concerned about is much shorter than 200. The good news is also that most of these diseases can be avoided or their impact minimized by following a few straightforward rules.

The single most effective thing you can do to avoid contracting a disease from an animal or from the shelter environment is to:


In addition, make certain to wash before handling any food or putting your hands in your mouth or up to your face and eyes.

Most diseases are spread through the oral route or by penetration through breaks in the skin or mucus membranes. This one simple step of handwashing will prevent the spread of most diseases by avoiding the route of infection. This is not foolproof, however, as some disease organisms can penetrate intact skin or are inhaled.

Other precautions:

  • Wear gloves when cleaning and disinfecting cages, food and water bowls, litter pans, etc.
    • This is especially important if you have any open wounds on your hands and arms.
      Wash your hands after removing the gloves. There may have been a break in the gloves.
  • Seek prompt medical attention for any scratches, bites or wounds received on the job.
    • Use gloves and the proper equipment when handling dangerous animals to avoid injury.
    • Wash and disinfect any wounds received immediately, and seek professional attention.
    • Avoid self-treatment.


  • Wash hands using iodine based disinfectant soaps
    • According to the CDC, in order to wash ones’ hands properly, hands should be lathered and rubbed together vigorously for at least 10 -15 seconds, and then rinsed thoroughly under a forceful stream of warm water.
  • Never clean cages in the kitchen or anywhere food is prepared or consumed.
  • Avoid eating food in areas where animals are housed or treated.
  • Avoid keeping food in the refrigerator with veterinary drugs like vaccines or laboratory samples. These are considered biohazards.
  • Avoid letting animals lick your face or wounds
  • Use extreme care to avoid being bitten or scratched when handling fractious animals.
    • Call for assistance whenever necessary and learn how to use proper restraint equipment such as heavy gloves, nets, tranquilizers, etc

Pregnant women should avoid cleaning litter boxes because of the risk of contracting Toxoplasmosis.

  • The risk is actually minimal and most cases of Toxoplasmosis are not transmitted to humans from cat feces, but from ingestion of contaminated or undercooked meat. Prompt daily cleaning of the litter box disposes of fecal material before it becomes infective. However, to be on the safe side, this duty should be assigned to others.

  • If you do become ill, let your physician know that you work with animals.
  • If you don’t know if a disease or condition is zoonotic or not, assume that it is and treat it accordingly. Wear gloves and masks, isolate the animal, wash hands, and DISINFECT, DISINFECT, DISINFECT!
  • It should always be remembered that most people who work with or own animals do not contract any of these diseases. The people most at risk are the elderly, young children, and people who are immune-compromised, such as HIV patients or people taking immunosuppressive drugs. The rewards obtained from the human animal bond far outweigh the risks of becoming ill from contact with animals.


All staff who handle animals should have a pre-exposure rabies vaccination.

Otherwise, designate certain people to handle all high risk, feral and wild animals and make certain that they are vaccinated. The vaccinations are given intradermally or subcutaneously as a series of 3 injections. After the initial vaccinations, titers should be taken every two years to make sure the body has mounted an adequate immune response. Consider these vaccinations even in non-rabies endemic areas, as it is difficult to obtain the history on the background of stray animals.

All staff should also be vaccinated against tetanus.

These vaccinations are effective for 10 years.


At one time it was believed that OSHA regulations did not apply to animal shelters and were only really important for large medical offices, factories and other really hazardous occupations. Small shelters felt safe from OSHA scrutiny. This is not the case.


Make certain that all material safety data sheets (MSDS) are available and readily accessible. Discuss their use with the staff.

Training of staff for techniques of proper and safe cleaning, proper dilution of disinfectants and other chemicals is essential.

OSHA concerns about worker safety also consider the general safety of the environment and worker techniques. Attention should be paid to the use of caution signage for wet floors when mopping, headphones to block out excessive noise in the kennels, improper use of extension cords which people can trip over, teaching techniques for lifting heavy objects (or animals) that prevent back injuries, etc.

Make certain medical waste is properly disposed of, including needles and syringes.

Make sure you have eye wash stations and a first aid kit that is readily available.

(This is by no means a complete list, but just some of the OSHA regulations that must be adhered to. It is strongly suggested that you consult with OSHA for the complete guidelines.)


Staff should receive training in animal handling, animal behavior, how to recognize and understand disease symptoms and disease transmission.

Understanding animal behavior is one of the keys to the prevention of animal bites and scratches.

Bite wounds are particularly dangerous because the inoculation of bacteria into puncture wounds makes them more difficult to properly clean and disinfect. The resultant infection can sometimes lead to serious illness that even requires hospitalization. Staff should be taught how to safely restrain animals, how to read their body language and when to call for assistance.

It is important to recognize the signs that an animal is sick.

Some signs are more obvious than others. Important symptoms of disease may include:
Depression, pale gums, loss of appetite, dehydration, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, ocular and nasal discharges, reddened eyes, hair loss or reddened skin, shaking the head, coughing, sneezing, lethargy, straining to urinate or defecate, blood in the stool or urine, lumps or swellings, penile or vaginal discharges, neurological problems like star gazing, head tilt, head pressing, seizuring, etc.

Diseases are transmitted by a number of mechanisms.

Most diseases are either caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses or fungi (the causative agent of ringworm) and are transmitted by the fecal-oral route or through breaks in the mucus membranes or skin. Staff should understand the modes of disease transmission in order to keep themselves healthy and safe.

The most commonly encountered diseases are caused by direct contact with infected tissues, aerosolized particles, contaminated feces, urine or saliva, or through contact with fomites. Fomites are contaminated objects like clothing, hands, mops, cleaning or grooming utensils, etc. Fomites are one of the most common ways diseases are transmitted and one of the most overlooked mechanisms. They are particularly dangerous when dealing with viruses or fungi that can survive in the environment for long periods of time and are resistant to routine disinfection techniques


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