Distemper outbreak closes EV dog shelter

Some dogs have to be doubled up in cages at the Maricopa County Animal Care and Control’s shelter in Mesa as the number of animals increases. (Sophie Oppfelt/Cronkite News)

Maricopa County Animal Care and Control’s East Shelter in Mesa remains closed to the public for the unforeseeable future as testing for distemper kicked off for over 200 dogs.

County pound officials reported that they feared they “are on the cusp of a distemper outbreak” after multiple dogs tested positive for distemper and several others started showing symptoms of the illness.

“Thanks to the amazing support of our community, there were several adoptions and rescues this weekend and we are now testing 213 dogs today instead of 300-plus,” said department spokeswoman Kim Powell last week.

“We do not have an estimate yet on when the East Shelter will reopen,” she said. “We are using three different vendors to run the lab tests, so result wait times may vary.”

Powell said she didn’t have available the number of tests that have been completed yet but as of Oct. 28, there were 21 dogs that tested and eight came back positive for the highly contagious viral disease.

“Unfortunately, dogs who test positive for distemper are humanely euthanized,” Powell said, adding that the last major outbreak at the East Shelter was in 2019.

In September, the department issued a call for adoptees and fosters due to an overload of dogs at its two shelters – 855 animals in 755 kennels – prompting some dogs to bunk together.

There is no cure for canine distemper, which is often fatal. Dogs that do survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

However, other experts say it’s entirely possible to recover from the disease, depending on the strength of the dog’s immune system and the strain of distemper. It can take up to two months to fully recover.

Initially, infected dogs will develop watery to pus-like discharge from their eyes and then develop fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite and vomiting, according to the association.

As the virus attacks the nervous system, infected dogs develop circling behavior, head tilt, muscle twitches, convulsions with jaw chewing movements and salivation, seizures and partial or complete paralysis, it added.

All unvaccinated dogs, regardless of age, are vulnerable to distemper and it’s an issue facing many shelters throughout the country this year, according to Powell.

However, critics were quick to bash the county.

“These poor dogs,” one woman wrote on social media. “This is all just gonna get worse for them. It was going on for a while. Last year I adopted a sick pup I couldn’t meet because he could possibly have distemper!”

And another wrote, “what happens to the remaining dogs at East today?

“I can answer they probably leave in trash bags… this group doesn’t care. If they did we would have proper protocols back to protect the dogs from exactly stuff like this.”

Powell discounted the criticism.

“Everyone has the right to express their opinions on social media,” she said. “Distemper has been in our community for a long time.

“It finds its way into the shelter because dogs come in under-vaccinated,” she continued. “It is not a productive use of our time to review and respond to online comments.”

Powell outlined the shelter’s protocol with new arrivals.

“When an animal enters our shelter, we often do not have the vaccine history, which is why they are vaccinated on intake,” she said. “One of the vaccines given is for distemper (DA2PP), which requires a booster after about two to four weeks.”

She said dogs entering the shelter are not initially quarantined typically as the shelter doesn’t have the space to make that possible but that there is an area to quarantine dogs.

And, until further notice, all dogs at the East Shelter will remain in their kennels to help reduce the potential spread of illness, according to Powell.

Dogs will not be permitted to leave their kennels for walks, enrichment and meet and greets, she said.

Infection spreads through airborne exposure through sneezing or coughing. The virus also can be transmitted by shared food and water bowls.

Powell said it’s business as usual at the county’s much larger West Shelter in Phoenix with adoption fees waived until further notice.

“There are currently no signs of a distemper outbreak at our West facility, however once testing is completed and East is reopened, we may look into testing dogs who are showing signs of illness just to be safe,” she said, adding:

“It’s important to note, dogs who are showing signs of illness may also have a different upper respiratory infection, like kennel cough.”

Animal activist Lorena Bader said “many of us knew it was just a matter of time before this would happen again.”

Bader, a retired school teacher, is circulating a petition on change.org demanding change at the county’s two animal shelters, including its management staff.

“They did nothing after the 2019 distemper outbreak at East except to give dogs a booster shot,” Bader claimed. “Then in June 2021, West had an outbreak. I had an anonymous staff member send me several emails detailing conditions that led to the outbreak. They quarantine dogs for over two months in some cases. I do not feel that they ever got rid of it, but what they did was quit testing and quit tracking dogs that likely had it.”

Bader, who used to volunteer at the county shelter, said there are shelters that have had outbreaks and have “saved the vast majority of dogs.”

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