BROOKSVILLE — A team of veterinarians found last summer that Hernando County Animal Services lacked basic protocols and omitted key steps as the staff euthanized animals, a new report reveals.
The findings are the latest development in a controversy at Animal Services that was sparked by the euthanization of an 8-month-old pit bull mix named Zeus just minutes after the dog was brought into the shelter in April to be put up for adoption.
In the 360-page report, delivered to the county last week, a team from the Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida detailed the flaws and made 16 recommendations concerning euthanasia procedures, all but three marked as "high priority'' for completion.
Among the veterinarians' findings:
• Animals were not weighed before euthanization to determine the correct level of anesthesia to be administered. Technicians would guess at the weight.
"Getting an accurate weight for each animal being euthanized is the foundation for identifying an appropriate drug dosage for pre-euthanasia drugs and euthanasia solution,'' the report states.
The right dose, based on weight, ensures "that animals receive a dosage that will achieve the desired result (central nervous system shutdown and cardiac standstill).''
• Workers did not consistently test to ensure that animals were property anesthetized before the euthanasia drug was injected into the heart.
"Before inserting a needle into an animal's heart, technicians must check for absence of eye and limb withdrawal reflexes to establish that the animal is completely unconscious and unable to feel pain,'' the report stated.
In one case, the report stated, "one cat was stuck three times in the chest before the heart was located. This cat was never assessed for anesthesia level or pain prior to inserting the needle into the cat's chest.''
• Euthanasia was performed in plain view of conscious animals.
"While the exact impact on an animal of viewing euthanasia of other animals is unknown, it likely induces stress and anxiety. It has been shown live animal observation of euthanasia does increase stress for staff," according to the report.
• Cats were not consistently confined in a carrier while waiting for the anesthetic to take effect.
"A dark, confined environment provides a safe, calm space for animals as they experience the effects of anesthesia and protects the staff in cases of unpredictable behavior or involuntary excitement,'' the report notes.
"The consultants observed that a staff member allowed a cat to walk around the euthanasia room after it was injected with an anesthetic drug.''
• Workers did not consistently verify that an animal was dead before removing the animal for storage and disposal.
• None of the animals placed in the freezer after euthanization were labeled. So if an owner came forward, there was no way to identify the body.
• The euthanasia room had inadequate light, missing equipment, no computer for recording information, no examination table and no scale.
• Without accurate measurements of how much of the euthanasia medications are used on each animal, the study noted, an audit of the drugs' use was not possible. Because of that, "there are inadequate controls in place to limit the risk of undetectable misuse of controlled substances.''
• The staff was waiting until animals were about to be euthanized to scan them for a microchip.
"Scanning for microchip identification prior to euthanasia represents a final chance to identify an owned animal and avoid unnecessary euthanasia,'' the report states.
• There is no clear, written protocol for selecting which dogs and cats are to be euthanized.
"Establish a clear and consistent decision-making process for euthanasia selection,'' the report recommends.
• There were no programs for stress reduction for the technicians who perform euthanasia.
"It is incumbent upon the management team at every shelter to take steps to protect the mental health and well-being of their technicians,'' the study states.
The lengthy, final report also lists dozens of recommendations in other areas of shelter operation, including various methods to adopt out more animals, ways to provide better care for the animals at the shelter, cleaning procedures and a detailed intake procedure.
The study was done at the request of the shelter after an incident in which dozens of abandoned Shih Tzu dogs were brought to the shelter, but many then died after becoming infected with the parvovirus.
Shelter staffers got a 98-page review of the findings of the survey team shortly after the evaluation was performed. Last week, county officials declined to respond to questions posed by the Times about what the county had done since then to improve the shelter, citing an audit and investigation the county began after the quick euthanization of Zeus.
But on Wednesday, the county issued a news release listing 35 actions taken since July 1 to respond to some of the findings of the UF survey team, as well as some additional actions planned. None addresses the concerns voiced by the assessment team about the euthanasia procedures except for an acknowledgement that animals are scanned for microchips earlier.
Even the temporary euthanasia policy adopted while the Zeus investigation is ongoing does not address the issues raised in the UF report. The temporary policy takes the employees involved in the Zeus incident out of the position of making euthanasia decisions, lengthens the time the shelter keeps feral cats and establishes that animals receive core vaccines as they come into the shelter.
The county's news release lists improvements that include adding regular rounds by an assessment team, weekly rounds by a volunteer veterinarian, partnering with other animal welfare groups to increase adoptions and adding volunteers to help place animals in rescues and permanent homes.
Some of the new volunteers have been the most vocal critics of the current operation at the shelter, and they initially reported the Zeus incident.
The county's news release notes that the increased efforts at the shelter can be seen in a decline in the percentage of animals that are euthanized.
"Comparing the first six months of fiscal year 2010-2011 with the first six months of the current fiscal year, there have been 17.2 percent fewer animals euthanized,'' the release states.
The audit and investigation of Animal Services is expected to be completed in the next several weeks.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.