The Waco Animal Shelter will remain closed until further notice, more than two weeks after it closed due to an outbreak of canine distemper, Waco City Shelter Manager Trey Buzbee said.
The closure, announced on October 28 and originally scheduled to end last Friday, applies not only to public surrender and adoption operations, but also to the reception of stray animals by animal control officers.
Two dogs began exhibiting late-October neurological symptoms and were isolated, tested and diagnosed with the distemper virus, leading to the shelter’s closure. The shelter had to euthanize five dogs that showed no signs of recovery from distemper, shelter officials said.
Shelter veterinarian Dr. Michael Vallon has led the shelter through the crisis for the past two weeks and said controlling the spread was his top priority.
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Vallon said distemper spreads in virtually every way possible: air droplets, nose, eyes, mucus, urine. He said the virus can also spread inside the shelter by simply handling the animals or through shared surfaces.
Buzbee said overcrowding at the shelter may have been a factor that played into the highly contagious outbreak. The shelter has been at maximum capacity for at least six to nine months.
He said the shelter has an admissions process that involves vaccinating animals when they arrive, but with the high volume of animals cared for and staffing issues slowing down the process, it has been difficult to ensure proper immediate vaccination.
Vallon said flooding caused animals to create a disease outbreak. He said the unknown nature and vaccination history of animals entering the facility may contribute to the spread of the disease.
The vaccine that protects dogs against distemper – DAPPv – also protects them against a range of diseases, including canine flu and parvovirus. However, Vallon said significant immunity can take two weeks to develop.
An animal that has already contracted the virus will not benefit from further vaccination or immunization, Vallon said, and dogs are usually asymptomatic for about 14 days.
“During this period, they are able to transmit it, but have no symptoms,” Vallon said. “Even if we vaccinate them then, they still have it and vaccination won’t do anything.”
The asymptomatic period and lack of previous vaccination records complicates contact tracing at the shelter, he said, making it difficult to identify how the virus entered.
Even more perplexed, Vallon said the early symptoms are much like common upper respiratory infections or kennel cough, which can be cured with treatment. Early symptoms include watery eyes filled with mucus followed by a runny nose, fever, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea.
However, the symptoms of distemper do not go away quickly and can become neurological, causing seizures.
The mortality rate from distemper is 50% in adult dogs and climbs to 80% in puppies.
Vallon said there is no “magic bullet” to cure distemper, and antiviral or antibiotic drugs are generally not used to treat the condition. Instead, Vallon and a small group of veterinarians work with about 190 dogs at the shelter to isolate sick animals. and manage their symptoms.
The Waco shelter is not alone in its battle, and Vallon said this year has been a particularly bad year for distemper outbreaks.
In Kaufman County, southeast of Dallas, the Humane Society of North Texas suspended all dog admissions and adoptions this week.
An outbreak among raccoons and foxes in March prompted Arlington city officials to issue a warning to pet owners, and the Texas SPCA closed all of its sites in June after reporting a case . A Midland shelter was forced to halt operations in September for distemper. The disease temporarily closed facilities in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas and Maryland during the year.
Buzbee said an easy way to prevent a pet from contracting the virus is to bring their food and water bowls indoors overnight and clean them often, as some wild animals, like raccoons are known carriers of distemper. Vallon said ferret owners should also be wary of the disease.
Vallon said he knows vet bills can be tough, but distemper will be rampant if pet owners don’t get their dogs vaccinated. He said the DAPPv vaccine is even available over-the-counter for owners to self-administer, saving them the vet bill while protecting their pets against a range of diseases.