ISE to the Rescue

The Wake County Animal Center (WCAC) is facing a severe problem. When new animals arrive at their rescue shelter, they bring the potential to carry the highly infectious parvovirus (parvo) that can spread to other animals. Luckily, ISE lecturer Natalia Summerville and her team of students were on the case. Parvo is contagious and lethal in more than 90 percent of untreated cases. Its infectious nature means that if the rescue shelter was not careful, the virus would spread. The student team would analyze years of data to find hotspots in the shelter and the surrounding community.

The project started after a conversation Summerville had with Sandra Strong, WCAC’s chief veterinarian and an adjunct professor at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Strong identified parvo as one of the primary diseases she was concerned about, given that it is highly infectious. Summerville recognized this concern as a great learning opportunity for her class and a way to help the Raleigh community. So, she offered the parvo project as one of four that her students could undertake. “We were given a summary of a few different projects and asked to form groups of four people,” junior Jessica Berlin described. “The groups then ranked which of the projects they preferred to work on this semester, and fortunately for us, we got our first choice,” she said. “I personally wanted to work on the WCAC project because I love animals, and merging data into a usable environment seemed like an interesting challenge to me.” Berlin’s group also included juniors Julia Peters and Ethan Houser as well as senior Iman Fisher.

Their goal was to map parvo cases both in and outside of the shelter. “We were analyzing where it came from,” Peters explained. “The goal was to split the cases into community cases and shelter cases, and then to further group them by location to help identify where most animals were becoming infected.” By identifying hotspots of parvo in the community, the shelter will be able to predict the odds of a new animal having the disease more accurately. Identifying shelter cases will help check how well the WCAC is doing with decontamination and containment. For example, if shelter cases are low, they know they are doing a good job keeping it contained. If there are cases, knowing where they are in the shelter helps to track the virus and keep it in check.

The team found that cases were more common during the summer months. “This was expected because these months align with kitten and puppy season,” said Houser. This season is when many open-admission shelters get pushed beyond their limits due to the increased number of animal births in the late spring.

The next step was to identify which cases originated in the community and which cases started in the shelter cases. The time it takes for an animal to start showing symptoms is five days. Using that incubation time, the team was able to separate the community from the shelter cases. 

With these new datasets, the students created heat maps by zip code of where cases were occurring. By knowing where these virus hotspots occur, the WCAC will be able to pursue community intervention plans such as vaccination clinics.

Finally, the students worked on locating where cases were most common within the shelter. Shelter locations included the receiving area, quarantine and isolation, adoption rooms and foster homes. By identifying areas within the shelter with a higher incidence of infections, the WCAC can test current biosecurity protocols (including sanitation efforts) and shelter layout to decrease shelter-acquired diseases. Preventing and controlling parvo in the shelter can be difficult because parvo is highly infectious and difficult to remove from exposed shelter locations, so this information was quite valuable to Strong and the WCAC.

Summerville knew that this experience would be more enriching than reading a textbook or sitting in class. “Students were able to apply the concepts taught in class to a real problem, generating real solutions and overcoming real challenges (vs. a textbook application),” she said. The students also agreed that the experience helped them develop their skills. “I really enjoyed working on this project,” Houser shared. “A lot of projects we are assigned are theoretical. It was such a great experience to get a real-world problem to work on throughout the semester. Not only were we able to sharpen our analytical, computing, and problem-solving skills, but we also needed to keep in mind the added dimension of interpersonal skills and communication with our project sponsor.” 


WCAC is an open-admission animal shelter operated by Wake County. Each year, it receives thousands of stray, abandoned and surrendered pets in Wake County. It works in partnership with fosters, volunteers and transfer partners to treat and rehome these animals.

If you have ever considered adopting a homeless dog or cat or want to support this worthy cause, go to the Wake County Animal Center website.