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Infectious Disease Transmission and Air Cleaning for Pet Care Providers

Colorful image artistically representing what germs and pathogens might look like when magnified

Just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals.

Basics of Infectious Disease Transmission and Air Cleaning for Pet Care Providers

By Annette Uda

“Does anyone know how long Bordetella and parainfluenza and other respiratory infections can live in an environment/on a surface?”

That was a question posed in IBPSA’s members-only Facebook group page. And the first reply?

“I believe it’s 48 hours.”

The fact is many infectious pathogens (germs, bacteria, viruses) can remain viable—alive and able to infect—in the air far beyond 48 hours, even weeks in certain circumstances. Not everyone knows that, but everyone in pet care should to help ensure the health of the animals in their care and the health of their business. This year has been a particularly rough one for pet care facilities in the U.S. as Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC), or as it’s more commonly known “kennel cough” or “canine cough,” caused outbreaks and closures even at facilities with the most stringent of cleaning protocols. The fact is it can happen to virtually anyone but understanding the basics of infectious disease transmission and air cleaning not only helps prevent infectious diseases outbreaks, it helps mitigate the impact to get you up and running more quickly, and gives you the knowledge to help your clients understand.

Whether you own or manage a boarding or daycare facility, veterinary clinic, pet salon, or grooming service, transmission of respiratory infections such as canine cough, canine influenza, and feline calicivirus can cost you time, customers, revenue, and your reputation. So how do you prevent it from happening? The following are the basics every pet care provider should know.

HOW INFECTIOUS DISEASES ARE TRANSMITTED

Infectious respiratory diseases are spread through the air and can remain viable for extended periods of time.  

When an infected dog coughs, sneezes, barks, or even sheds dander—just once—he releases thousands of microscopic contaminates into the air. While some of these contaminants are large and heavy enough to fall to the surface where they can be eliminated with surface cleaning, most are “aerosolized.”1 These virtually invisible bacteria and viruses—known as droplet nuclei—cling to tiny dust particles, riding on air currents and traveling throughout the environment until inhaled by another host. Once ingested, these agents begin to wreak havoc within the upper respiratory tract.

Airborne diseases are also spread through direct contact with infected dogs and contact with other contaminated objects. 

Touching noses, sniffing butts, or just breathing the same air as an infected dog can spread disease. This is why dog daycare and dog boarding facilities, veterinary hospitals, dog grooming and other pet businesses where numerous dogs are coming and going or kept in close quarters, or have “social dogs,” must take extra precautions. If an infected dog drinks from a watering dish, picks up a toy or stick, or hikes his leg on a post, another dog who comes in contact with these objects could contract the disease. The canine influenza virus and bacterium like Bordetella, for example, can survive on surfaces for up to 48 hours, ready and waiting to be transmitted to another unsuspecting host to continue the cycle of infection. This fact is why “I believe it’s 48 hours” is not an incorrect answer to a question that asks how long an infectious pathogen can live on a surface, but it’s not the complete answer to a question that asks how long an infectious pathogen can live in an environment. The environment includes the air circulating through your facility, and the microscopic, aerosolized bacteria and viruses riding on its currents, being breathed in by your furry guests and your staff.

HOW INFECTIOUS DISEASE TRANSMISSION CAN BE PREVENTED

Vaccine protocols (including titers testing) are a must for pet care facilities but are also just one part of a multi-pronged strategy that must include surface cleaning and air sanitizing with the proper equipment.

Establish vaccine protocols but also understand the limits.

As vaccine requirements vary by area, consulting with a local veterinarian will help you establish what’s optimal for your neck of the woods. And, because vaccines can take a few days to a few weeks to become effective, establishing a minimum time before boarding should be considered. But don’t rely on vaccines to ensure the health of your clients—while they play a role, they are also simply not enough. From the information sheet for canine cough (CIRDC), published by the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine:

“Canine infectious respiratory disease complex, almost by definition, is not a vaccine-preventable condition. There are no vaccines available for some contributory or primary pathogens, some vaccines only provide partial protection at best, and it is not always possible to vaccinate animals prior to exposure in a shelter environment. In spite of these limitations, vaccination definitely plays a role in controlling CIRDC.”2

Have thorough sanitation and disinfection protocols in place along with isolation readiness and a plan of action. 

Proper sanitation techniques are key in containing and killing respiratory infectious diseases. It is imperative to clean and disinfect counters, tables, floors, walls, cages, bowls, toys and other surfaces. In a perfect world, you will never need to use an isolation readiness plan, but pet care is not a perfect world. Isolating a dog that is showing symptoms of an infectious disease is the very first step to keeping the virus contained and limiting the chances of an outbreak in your facility. All pet care facilities should have a plan of action that includes a dedicated quarantine room or area (preferably with air sanitizing equipment in place, more on that later) and a separate entrance/exit for infected dogs. 

“I’m doing the vaccines. I’m doing the cleaning. Why am I still having outbreaks?”

That was an audience question at a dog flu workshop. Why do outbreaks still occur? To tackle this question, start with the understanding that animal care is not human care. Animal care facilities are at a much higher risk than human healthcare facilities. No masks worn, no barriers exist. Can you imagine putting a mask on a dog or cat—and keeping it on? Airborne transmission is a critical mode of transportation. You’re doing the vaccines and the surface cleaning but are you also cleaning the air?

Sanitize the air.

The airborne pathogens that can make pets sick are measured in microns. That is, one millionth of a meter. These droplet nuclei are equal to or less than 5 microns in size.3 For a quick visual, think of what you see sometimes in a shaft of sunlight. See those tiny specks of dust and dander dancing about? The droplet nuclei of infectious pathogens cling to those already tiny specks circulating throughout your facility. Cleaning the air should not be considered a luxury for pet care facilities but, rather, a must to mitigate disease transmission. But how do you do it?

More importantly, sanitize the air safely and effectively.

In the Q1 2019 issue of Pet Care Pro Quarterly, the various ways people tackle cleaning the air was addressed in “Sprays? Ozone? Ionizers? UV? What’s the Right Way to Clean the Air?” Each of those methods was addressed in detail and the following are summary highlights from that article:

“Not only do surface cleaners and air fresheners not clean the air, they may be causing worse air quality for animals and humans.”

“The dangers in ozone for humans and animals, whether intentionally produced or as a byproduct, cannot be overstated.”

“Given their propensity to create ozone…failure to effectively kill pathogens and have those pathogens indiscriminately land on surfaces and return to the air if they’re not immediately eliminated, air ionizers are not a recommended way to clean the air.”

“UVGI (ultraviolet germicidal irradiation a.k.a. UV) technology is ideal for optimized air cleaning and sanitizing wherever animals are housed together (and it benefits the humans who care for them as well who are now breathing the same clean, sanitized air). UVGI can eliminate up to 99.9 percent of infectious pathogens but:

  • It must be the right UVGI. ‘Over the counter’ UVGI light is not strong enough and cannot achieve a high enough bacteria and virus kill rate in the short amount of time that is needed to be effective.
  • It must be the right amount of UVGI energy for the space. Every building, every space, has different, custom requirements.
  • It must not produce ozone. Some UV systems do, unfortunately.”

UVGI has been used to control infectious disease transmission in human healthcare settings for close to a century. And if animal care practically requires more sanitization than human care thanks to fewer barriers, it makes even more sense. But, as the use of UVGI makes headway in the world of animal care, so, too, does misinformation and misunderstanding about how and why it works.

How UVGI works and what it does.

Think of cleaning the air somewhat like cooling the air. Very simply put, air conditioners work by cooling air as it passes through them. Hot air goes in, cold air comes out. You can clean the air by sanitizing it as it passes through something that will kill the bacteria and viruses. That something is UVGI. As noted previously, it is often just called UV but it is not the same UV as the UV-A or UV-B we hear about more often that cause premature aging (UV-A) or skin cancer (UV-B), for example. This UV is used to disinfect, sanitize, and control infection in environments where maintaining sanitary air circulation is critical.  UVGI works as a mutagen to bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms on a cellular level, penetrating the cell wall. This disrupts the microorganism’s DNA, breaking the carbon bond which causes the death of the cell and/or renders it helpless.

Also, in the right set up, utilizing UVGI can neutralize foul odors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are emitted by a plethora of chemically scented products—shampoos, detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, grooming sprays, surface cleaners, and even those aerosol air fresheners. Fresh paint, flooring, and new furniture can also emit these VOCs that can cause a range of health issues for animals (and you, for that matter) including allergic reactions, among other potentially more serious afflictions. You and your staff may detect their presence not only due to the intended smell, but also thanks to watering eyes, dull headache, and irritability. With UV air cleaning systems that do not produce ozone, photocatalytic oxidation technology can be safely used. To put it very simply, when exposed to UV light, a catalytic material that surrounds the UV light will react to it, producing an oxidizing agent that converts VOCs to water and carbon dioxide. The process is non-toxic and safe for pets and humans.

In short, by continually and quietly circulating the air in your facility through UVGI light energy, as viruses, bacteria, mold, germs, odors, and VOCs pass through the UVGI rays, they are killed or neutralized before they have a chance to cause or spread infection or discomfort. Make sense?

How UVGI for air sanitizing does not work.

UVGI is commonly used for air cleaning and cleaning. Indeed, it is not uncommon today for UV lights to be part of a new HVAC system for the specific purpose of cleaning coils. But here’s the important basic to know: while UVGI for air cleaning is powerful enough to also clean coils, the reverse is not true. Make certain you’re not getting just coil cleaning with a low amount of air cleaning in one air pass, but 99.9 percent air cleaning in one air pass with coil cleaning.

For UVGI to work it must have proper circulation. If the air can’t circulate past the UVGI rays then the infectious pathogens in the air cannot be killed. Let’s say you have a standalone UVGI “tower” sitting in a room. That UV may kill 99.9 percent of the pathogens that come into contact with it but what about the rest of the pathogens floating in the air that never dance by? For UVGI to work—really work—it requires unimpeded air circulation whether from an HVAC system, natural air circulation, or assisted by fans. Moreover, for UVGI to work—really work—it requires the correctly calibrated amount of germicidal energy for the space. Think of a space heater. It keeps you warm and cozy on your couch but what about the rest of your space? How would you calculate how much larger that space heater should be to heat your entire home? Or how many space heaters would you need? Now imagine if you weren’t trying to heat your home but prevent the spread of infectious disease at your business.

Ultimately, the most important basics to know about infectious disease transmission and air cleaning for pet care providers are: educate yourself and work with experts. From the veterinarian in your area who can advise on proper vaccine protocols to UVGI experts who also work with mechanical engineers and facility design experts to ensure proper air circulation and maximum pathogen elimination, work with people and businesses who work specifically in animal care. The health of the pets and your business depend on it.

1 Atkinson J, Chartier Y, Pessoa-Silva CL, et al., editors. Natural Ventilation for Infection Control in Health-Care Settings. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2009.

2 Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC, a.k.a. “Kennel Cough”). University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, 2015.

3 Atkinson, et al. Natural Ventilation.

Annette Uda is the founder of PetAirapy, the animal care industry’s leading manufacturer of proprietary UVGI surface and air sanitation equipment and the winner of the 2019 IBPSA Pet Care Business Excellence Vendor Award. Annette has a passion for animal health and educating animal care providers on reliable, non-toxic ways to create clean, healthy environments for your animal clients and your staff that are protected from airborne pathogens, infectious disease, and noxious VOCs. In 2019, PetAirapy also launched FreshAirapy, its natural, non-toxic line of products for targeted, immediate odor control specifically for the animal care industry. To learn more about her company, visit petairapy.com