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Veterinary and Other Animal Care Services

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Introduction

This tip sheet is for employers and workers in the Veterinary sector. Some sections may also apply to other animal care sectors (e.g., groomers, animal control and shelters, breeders, pet stores, dog walkers and daycare, stables, farriers, conservation parks, zoos, and other settings where people interact closely with animals). It provides an overview of recommended controls to help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.

In all cases, guidance from local public health authorities and your jurisdictional OHS regulator must be followed. Cooperate with inspectors to safely accommodate their inspection activities.

Also refer to current guidance from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC): “Animals and COVID-19”, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA): “Frequently Asked Questions for Veterinarians”, Humane Canada, and other applicable business associations.

For general COVID-19 prevention practices for both employers and workers refer to the CCOHS COVID-19 Resources documents, including “Protect Yourself and Others from COVID-19”, “COVID-19 Health and Safety Planning for Employers”, and “COVID-19 Prevention for Workers”. If your workplace includes retail activities (pet food and other supplies) you may also wish to refer to the “CCOHS COVID-19 Tip Sheet for Retail”.

Meet your legal occupational health and safety obligations by doing everything reasonably possible under the circumstances to protect the health and safety of your workers.

As animal care facilities vary in size from small owner-operators to large businesses with many workers or multiple shifts, a variety of tips have been provided. Apply the ones that best fit your workplace.

Consider the Risks

Each workplace is unique. Employers need to perform a COVID-19 risk assessment for their specific workplace, job roles, and activities (routine tasks and in-person interactions). Examples of activities to review include client reception and patient intake, clinical examination, surgery, kennels and boarding, animal care (feeding, exercise, training, grooming, breeding, etc.), travel and transportation, supply pick-up and delivery, re-stocking, sales, and maintenance activities.

The risk of COVID-19 transmission is increased with close proximity (less than 2 metres) and in-person interactions (close-range conversations, touching), generation of respiratory droplets (when speaking, coughing, sneezing, singing, shouting, and during strenuous activities that increase breath rate), crowded or closed spaces with poor ventilation, inadequate personal hygiene practices or facilities, and contaminated surfaces (fomites). Risk of transmission increases further when several of these risk factors are present in the same setting.

Once the risks have been identified and evaluated, the employer must implement appropriate hazard controls using the hierarchy of controls (i.e., elimination, substitution, engineering, administrative, personal protective equipment), including multiple personal preventive practices in a layered approach. Consider implementing a workplace safety plan to identify and implement solutions for COVID-19 associated risks. The plan should address as many aspects as possible in priority order.

When implementing new COVID-19 control measures, assess the potential impacts to existing infrastructure, processes, worker safety, client safety, and animal safety. Make sure you do not create new workplace hazards or impact existing infection prevention controls. Update existing policies and procedures as needed to incorporate COVID-19 risks and control measures. Continue to evaluate how effective the controls are and make changes if needed.

Here are example questions that can be asked to help you identify COVID-19 risk factors and appropriate controls for your workplace:

  • What are the main work zones, activities, and job roles?
  • Where and when do workers interact with other people and with animals at the workplace?
  • How close are the interactions? Do they need to be close for certain job tasks (i.e., when and where is physical distancing not possible)? The risk of transmission increases with close and frequent contact.
  • How long are the interactions? Evidence indicates that spread is more likely with prolonged contact.
  • How crowded are the workspaces, with people and animals?
  • Is ventilation of indoor spaces adequate?
  • Do workers travel and work outside of the main facility (e.g., to farms or private homes)?
  • Are workers using group transportation or a mobile service vehicle?
  • Do workers, clients, and visitors have easy access to personal hygiene facilities (e.g., toilets, running water, soap, and hand sanitizer)?
  • How are equipment and tools used in the workplace? Are they shared between workers?
  • How often, by which method, and when are surfaces and objects cleaned and disinfected? Have the selected disinfectants been assessed for both animal safety and effectiveness against the COVID-19 virus? Do they have a drug identification number (DIN) from Health Canada?
  • Do workers have the knowledge they need to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19?
  • Could language barriers impact the ability of workers or clients to understand and implement the transmission control measures?
  • Are you able to assess if a worker, client, or animal may be sick or have been exposed, and rapidly take appropriate actions?
  • How will animals that are symptomatic or from a COVID-19 positive household be handled? Are there exposure risks to workers and other animals?
  • Are corporate or business sick leave policies adequate to support worker isolation and quarantine?

While the pandemic is primarily driven by person-to-person spread, animal-care sector workplaces should also evaluate the risks of COVID-19 transmission and illness for the animals in their care. Studies of infection in companion, livestock, and wild animals have identified some species that are susceptible to infection by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, either from other animals or from people. Susceptibility, clinical symptoms, and transmission in various species continues to be evaluated. There is currently limited information and a high level of uncertainty regarding rates of animal-to-animal, animal-to-human, and human-to-animal transmission of COVID-19. Consult with your applicable business association (e.g., veterinary, agriculture, groomers, etc.) for details and updates.

Animal care workers should continue to follow best practices for clinical infection control and prevention of zoonotic disease transmission, while integrating recommended COVID-19 control measures. Clients should be advised that, should they become ill or have a potential COVID-19 exposure, there may be a risk of transmitting COVID-19 to their companion animals. Refer to the screening section further below for more details on recommended actions.

Control Measures

Elimination (including Substitution)

These types of controls eliminate exposures (at the workplace):

  • Workers whose jobs can be performed remotely should work from home.
  • Use remote communication technologies such as teleconferencing when possible.
  • Some services may need to be temporarily unavailable, if they cannot be performed safely (e.g., in some jurisdictions, grooming is restricted to essential medical only).

Engineering Controls

These types of controls use physical infrastructure to reduce workplace exposure. They rely on good design and maintenance to be fully effective.

Physical Barriers

  • Install appropriately sized and positioned barriers where physical distancing of at least 2 metres between people cannot be maintained, e.g., at front reception desk, between waiting room chairs, or in small examination rooms.
  • Barriers should block respiratory droplets, extend above head height, and allow free and safe movement of the worker within their enclosed zone. Refer to local public health guidance for detailed instructions on barrier design and installation.
  • Use plexiglass, plastic curtains, or other impermeable materials that are durable and easy to clean and disinfect.
  • Guide pedestrian traffic and queues using lane barriers, each lane spaced to be sure that individuals are at least 2 metres apart in all directions.

Ventilation

Poor ventilation can result in virus accumulation in the air. Continually ventilating indoor spaces will dilute and replace the potentially contaminated air. Make sure that:

  • Any indoor work or procedure is conducted in a space that is well ventilated.
  • A licenced heating ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) expert is consulted before making any physical or setting alterations.
  • Existing indoor air quality requirements are not compromised (e.g., in the veterinary surgical suite or other controlled areas).
  • Stale indoor and vehicle cabin air is not continually re-circulated.
  • If using hair dryers for grooming activities, consider the direction of the airflow. A portable air filtration hood could be used above the grooming station to capture airborne fur particles.
  • Air circulation or cooling fans are not directing air flow from person to person. Other ways can be used to keep workspaces cool, such as shutting off heat generating equipment when not in use or allowing fewer animals and workers into closed spaces at one time.

For additional detailed information on ventilation, please refer to the Government of Canada website “COVID-19: Guidance on indoor ventilation during the pandemic” and the CCOHS document “COVID-19 Tip Sheet: Ventilation”.

Other Engineering Controls

  • Install enough handwashing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers to ensure easy access for all persons who enter the workplace.
  • If plumbing is not available, provide a spouted water container and catch basin, with water, soap, and paper towels. Also provide personal-use sanitizer dispensers.
  • Reduce the number of touchpoints:
    • Replace round doorknobs with handles and push-plates that can be operated using wrists.
    • Install automatic doors or prop non-fire doors open. Be careful not to create new hazards (tripping or fire).
    • Install automatic touch-free water taps, sanitizer dispensers, toilet flush levers, paper towel dispensers, and waste bins.
    • Install movement sensors to activate lighting and minimize use of wall switches.
    • Use contactless bill payment methods, such as debit or credit card tap, wireless phone payment, or e-transfers.
    • Use touch-free methods for workers to clock in, such as electronic key cards, messaging/e-mail, or rollcall by a supervisor.
  • Replace soft surfaces (carpets, seating) with hard surfaces (tile, wood, metal, plastic) that are easier to clean and disinfect.
  • Increase physical distancing between workers by rearranging, removing, or blocking-off workstations, cubicles, and furniture (meeting, break, and waiting rooms).
  • Reassign room usage to provide more space. Use larger well-ventilated rooms or outdoor spaces (weather permitting) for meetings and breaks.
  • Designate or build separate kennel areas and examination rooms for isolation and quarantine of animals that have COVID-19 illness or exposure, space permitting.
  • Close the workplace to the general public, including waiting rooms, if necessary.
  • Restrict people from entering zones they do not perform work in or need access to (does not apply in emergency situations).
  • Establish one-way walking routes in corridors and stairways to minimize cross traffic.
  • Use signs and floor markings (at least 2 metres apart in all directions) to indicate where people should stand and walk.
  • Reduce noise levels as much as possible to reduce the need to shout. Consider providing earplugs that block loud frequencies but allow the vocal range to be heard.

Administrative Controls

These types of controls reduce risk through policies, procedures, and training. They rely on personnel management and compliance to be fully effective.

COVID-19 Safety Plan

A written COVID-19 safety plan may be legally required by the jurisdiction in which you operate. It may need to be posted, and available upon request from an inspector. Refer to your jurisdiction for instructions on what must be included in the plan.

It is recommended that the plan:

  • Be specific to the workplace infrastructure, activities, and job roles.
  • Lists all of the controls implemented to protect workers, other people, and animals.
  • Outlines how to respond to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
  • Considers what to do if large numbers of workers need to be isolated, quarantined, or will require medical care, e.g., personnel logistics and coverage for absent workers.
  • Considers what to do if large numbers of animals need to be isolated, quarantined, or will require medical care for COVID-19 illness.
  • Be implemented and maintained by a designated administrator or committee.
  • Be reviewed and updated frequently to comply with evolving pandemic requirements.
  • Be communicated to management and workers as part of their training.

Screening Process

  • Passive screening relies on workers to self-monitor and notify their employer if they feel sick or have possibly been exposed to COVID-19. For clients and others, self-screening could be prompted by a notice posted on the door, an automated phone message, or a website listing symptoms and entry restrictions.
  • Active screening requires the employer to ask workers questions about symptoms and potential exposure events before each work shift. For clients and others, active screening could be done by a worker posted at the entrance, or over the phone.
  • Use a checklist from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) or your local public health authority.
  • Screening should be done for any workers, volunteers, clients, visitors, contractors, inspectors, or other persons who may enter the workplace.
  • Record names, contact information, times, and locations. Make sure that privacy is protected, and that the information is stored and destroyed in a safe and secure manner. If requested, provide the information to the local public health authority to assist their contact tracing efforts.
  • Screen for potential exposure to COVID-19 in the past 14 days:
    • Recent travel (international or domestic)
    • Contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19
    • Community outbreaks, such as at a local school, store, or event
  • Screen for the most common symptoms of COVID-19.
  • If readily available and feasible, consider implementing routine rapid testing of all workers and clients as an additional active screening measure. Consider how you will manage the response to a rapid test result.
  • Consider promoting use of the national COVID Alert App.

What to do if a person or animal is symptomatic or exposed

  • If a worker or other person in the workplace is identified as having symptoms, or has potentially been exposed to COVID-19:
    • Call 911 if symptoms are life-threatening.
    • Have them wear a medical (surgical) mask. If unavailable, they should properly wear a well-constructed, well-fitting non-medical mask.
    • Do not allow the identified worker(s) to continue with their job tasks.
    • Make every effort to keep them isolated before sending them home.
    • To reduce community spread, discourage them from using public transit, taxi, or rideshare.
    • Suggest that they stay home (or return home) and contact their health care provider or local public health authority if they develop symptoms or symptoms worsen.
    • Clean and disinfect any surfaces the identified person(s) may have touched.
  • Develop procedures for contacting local public health authorities for further advice in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.
  • If the case is work-related involving a worker, additional notifications may be required, contact your jurisdictional OHS regulator and worker compensation board for guidance. Complete an incident report and begin an investigation.
  • If a client animal is identified as having symptoms, is from a COVID-19 positive household, or has potentially been exposed to COVID-19 from other animals or people:
    • Intake of sick or exposed animals should be avoided when possible. Reschedule the appointment if delay will not threaten the health and welfare of the animal.
    • If intake is necessary, assess the degree of risk to workers and other animals at the clinic. Determine the appropriate precautionary measures on a case-by-case basis. An abundance of caution is recommended.
    • Use appropriate cleaning and disinfection, hand hygiene, and personal protective equipment (lab coat, gloves, medical mask, and eye protection).
    • Minimize the animals direct contact with people and other animals. Isolate them in a separate designated kennel area if possible.
  • If a client is COVID-19 positive or in isolation/quarantine and has concerns about transmitting COVID-19 to their companion animal(s), provide the following advice:
    • Practice the same personal preventive practices as for in-person interactions.
    • Recommend they wear a medical (surgical) mask. If unavailable, they should properly wear a well-constructed, well-fitting non-medical mask.
    • Avoid close contact with their pet (petting, cuddling, kisses and licks, sharing food, sleeping in the same bed) for the duration of their illness or quarantine period.
    • Perform hand hygiene before and after handling or caring for their animal or touching their food and supplies.
    • If possible, have another person in the immediate household care for the animal.
    • Take into consideration the comfort that a companion animal can provide to their owner while they are ill or isolated. There is no risk-based reason (at this time) to remove the animal from the household or surrender it to a shelter.
    • Do not allow the animal to interact with other animals or people outside of the immediate household, for at least 14 days after the animal’s last exposure to the human case.

Physical Distancing

  • Implement and enforce an indoor and outdoor workplace physical distancing policy.
  • Keep essential in-person and animal interactions few, brief, and from the greatest distance possible (at least 2 metres).
  • Job tasks that require workers to be in close contact with other people and with animals should be modified if possible.
  • Workers should minimize non-essential in-person interactions with people from outside of their immediate household or work cohort.
  • Do not exceed the occupancy limits for buildings and rooms set by your jurisdiction.
  • Have clients book or cancel their appointments online or over the phone. Discourage non-emergency walk-ins. Consider waiving cancellation penalties to encourage ill clients to stay home.
  • Ask clients to arrive at the time of their scheduled appointment (no earlier), and to call when they arrive. If required, only allow one person (healthy adult) to accompany the animal indoors.
  • If it will not cause undue stress to the animal, ask the client to wait in their vehicle while their pet is being attended to by the veterinarian, technician, or groomer.
  • Discourage workers from congregating and crowding during breaks and shift-changes, including in outdoor break areas and weather shelters. After-work gatherings should also be discouraged.
  • Discourage direct physical contact such as hugs and handshakes.
  • If there are large numbers of workers or multiple work shifts, consider implementing a cohort system (dedicated teams, crews of workers). Schedule the cohort to work, attend meetings and training, and take breaks together. Do not allow cohorts to mingle. The use of cohorts reduces the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and helps with contact tracing if a positive COVID-19 case is found in the workplace.
  • Encourage workers to only work at one job location.
  • Discourage use of carpooling, public transit, and rideshare services.
  • Plan for how workers will maintain physical distance while evacuating or sheltering-in-place in the event of an emergency. There may be exceptions when providing emergency first aid or rescue.
  • Limit or reschedule visits to your workplace by contractors, vendors, or other visitors.
  • Methods of goods delivery may vary by supplier. Schedule large deliveries during hours when less workers and clients are present or arrange for curb-side pickup.

Good Hygiene Practices

  • Continue to follow veterinary medical infection control protocols, including handling and disposal of contaminated waste materials.
  • Encourage frequent hand hygiene for all people who enter the workplace:
    When: before and after the work shift, handling and caring for animals, touching shared items, using equipment and tools, touching their face mask, donning and doffing personal protective equipment (PPE), handling food, using the washroom, etc.
    How: washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or if not available use hand sanitizer (more than 60% alcohol-based). If hands are visibly dirty, they must be washed with soap and water.
  • Discourage shouting, which can cause respiratory droplets to travel for long distances.
  • Do not allow workers to share personal protective equipment (PPE), uniforms, non-medical masks, food and beverages, eating utensils and glassware, and cellphones.
  • Consider providing each worker or cohort with their own set of tools.
  • Provide laundry service for uniforms or require workers wear freshly cleaned uniforms or clothes for each shift. Clothes should be bagged and washed after each shift.
  • Remove communal coat storage areas. If they do not have lockers or desks, provide sealed bins or bags for workers to store their personal items, footwear, and clothing.
  • Provide animals from different households with separate bedding, toys, food and water dishes, and other care supplies and tools.
  • Do not allow pet bedding and clothing, leashes/leads/harnesses, food and water dishes, grooming tools (brushes, combs), or toys from the client’s household to remain at the clinic.
  • Carefully handle soiled fabric bedding, soft pet toys, and leashes/leads/harnesses. Collect laundry in a closed lined hamper or bag. Do not shake soiled bedding. Launder in hot water with detergent and dry thoroughly before re-use with a different animal. If soft toys cannot be washed, consider replacing them with pet-safe plastic or rubber toys that can be washed in hot soapy water or disinfected.

Cleaning and Disinfection

  • Make sure that all disinfectants used are both animal-safe and effective against COVID-19. Refer to this Health Canada guidance for hard-surface disinfectants and hand sanitizers.
  • Follow the product manufacturers instructions for safe handling and effective use. Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) if required.
  • Develop a cleaning and disinfection program, with schedules and checklists for each work area.
  • While veterinary operations already follow strict cleaning and disinfection protocols (e.g., in surgical suites, examination rooms, and kennels), existing infection control programs should be expanded to include touch surfaces and objects throughout the workplace.
  • Clean workspaces, washrooms, kitchens, lunchrooms, offices, reception areas, waiting rooms, and other shared spaces at least once a day.
  • Frequently touched and shared objects and surfaces should be disinfected often. Consider all tools, equipment surfaces and controls, tables and chairs, racks and shelves, carts, bins, solid barriers (plexiglass, plastic curtains), light switches, PIN-pads and touchscreens, computer mouse and keyboard, phones, and shared office supplies.
  • Remind workers to also clean and disinfect personal devices such as cellphones.
  • Clean and disinfect company vehicles between users (keys, steering wheel, gear shift, controls, vents, belts, seats, interior and exterior door handles, etc.).
  • Make sure washrooms have running water, and are stocked with soap, paper towels and a plastic lined no-touch waste container.
  • Dense concentrations of organic particles (dirt, water, blood, faeces, vomit, fur/hair/feathers) can transport the virus across surfaces and into the air.
  • Keep solid particles as contained as possible during sweeping and avoid using strong water spray that can cause aerosolization. Dry particles can be dampened before sweeping to reduce their movement.
  • Minimize the number of workers and animals in the area during intensive cleaning and allow time for dry and wet particles to settle before resuming activities.
  • If an external service contractor must visit (e.g., for construction or repairs), clean and disinfect their work area before and after their visit.
  • Refer to the CCOHS "Cleaning and Disinfecting" tip sheet for further guidance and examples of objects and surfaces.

Communication & Training

  • Communicate all new and updated practices and policies to workers and clients.
  • Use accessible formats and language(s).
  • Train all workers about COVID-19, including:
    • What COVID-19 is and the common symptoms
    • What to do if they feel sick or may have been exposed
    • How the virus spreads
    • How to protect themselves and others by layering multiple hazard controls and personal preventive practices
    • How to safely handle and care for animals that are symptomatic or from a COVID-19 positive household
    • How to properly wear, handle, and care for their PPE and masks
    • How to safely use cleaning and disinfection chemicals (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System WHMIS)
    • How to stay informed about COVID-19 using reputable sources
    • The benefits of vaccination
  • Monitor compliance and repeat the training as often as needed.
  • Encourage workers to report any COVID-19 concerns to their employer, supervisor, health and safety committee or representative, or union if present.
  • Ensure that managers and supervisors understand the risks, control measures, and policies. They must stay up to date on current legal requirements as the pandemic situation evolves.
  • Before they visit, communicate with external service providers about your COVID-19 controls, and also work with those services to assist with their COVID-19 precautions.

Human Resources Policies

  • Implement a mask wearing policy:
    • Follow the mask wearing requirements of your local public health agency and jurisdiction. Consider requiring that masks be worn at all times except when eating or drinking.
    • Make sure that wearing a mask does not create new hazards such as from entanglement (moving equipment) or flammability (open flame or sparks).
    • Non-medical masks are useful in reducing the spread of COVID-19 but are not considered to be personal protective equipment (PPE), as they do not meet regulated testing and certification standards. Continue to use PPE for existing occupational safety hazards and emergencies, as directed by applicable laws.
    • Update your existing heat-stress program, as mask-wearing may increase physiological stress during high-exertion tasks.
    • Masks must be well-constructed, well-fitting, and worn properly.
    • There is great variation in the quality of masks available from retail sources. Consider providing appropriate single-use medical (surgical) masks or re-useable fabric non-medical masks to workers and clients.
    • Refer to PHAC: Non-medical masks for further information and guidance.
  • Modify shift schedules to support both normal activities and COVID-19 control measures:
    • To reduce the potential daily exposure time of each worker, reduce the length of long shifts (e.g., 10+ hours), or rotate them to tasks that are not client-facing.
    • Stagger workers’ arrival and departure times to avoid crowding and mingling.
    • Schedule enough time throughout the shift for workers to complete their regular tasks safely, while also meeting physical distancing, personal hygiene, and extra cleaning-disinfection requirements (e.g., without rushing or cutting corners).
    • Adjust daily staff levels to have the fewest people in the workplace, while making sure tasks can be completed safely.
    • If there are fewer workers available, make sure essential roles such as trained supervisors, and first aid or emergency response team members are present on each shift. Make sure workers are trained to work safely including when replacing the duties of others.
  • Adopt flexible sick leave policies that enable ill workers to stay home:
    • Communicate firmly that sick workers should not come to work
    • Designate a process for sick workers to immediately notify their supervisor
    • Provide support to workers who are off sick
    • Do not penalize workers who must take leave to isolate or quarantine
    • Give advances on future sick leave or consider allowing workers to donate sick time to each other
    • Provide information on government economic support resources
  • Some workers may require accommodation to continue working safely (e.g., those at higher risk of severe disease or outcomes from contracting COVID-19).
  • Provide mental health support and resources.

Providing External Services

  • For large animal clinics, consult with farm and stable managers before arriving on-site about their own COVID-19 precautions and requirements. Minimize the number of farm workers who are needed to assist your veterinary staff, while still maintaining animal handling safety.
  • If your service normally handles multiple animals from different households at the same time (e.g., group dog walking) consider booking separate time slots for each household.
  • Pick up animals at the door instead of entering the building.
  • In-home services may need to be modified or temporarily suspended, due to local public health gathering and occupancy limits.
  • Stock your service vehicle with extra supplies (soap and disinfectant, paper towels, hand sanitizer, fresh masks and gloves). Air out the vehicle, clean and disinfect surfaces, perform hand hygiene, and change your PPE and mask between each client to reduce the chance of transmission between different households.
  • Discuss infection control and isolation/quarantine measures with transportation services when shipping or receiving large numbers of animals (e.g., pet trade, rescue organizations, or livestock).

It is important that mental health resources and support are provided to all workers, including access to an employee assistance program, if available.

For further information on COVID-19, refer to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Note that this guidance is just some of the adjustments organizations can make during a pandemic. Adapt this list by adding your own good practices and policies to meet your organization’s specific needs.

Document last updated April 23, 2021