Waco Animal Shelter remains closed more than two weeks after distemper outbreak

Waco Animal Shelter remains closed more than two weeks after distemper outbreak

Waco Animal Shelter will remain closed until further notice, more than two weeks after it closed because of a canine distemper outbreak, city of Waco shelter director Trey Buzbee said.

The closure, announced Oct. 28 and originally intended to end this past Friday, applies not only to the public surrender and adoption operations but also to intake of stray animals from animal control officers.

Two dogs began showing late-disease neurological symptoms in late October and were isolated, tested and diagnosed with the distemper virus, prompting the shelter’s closure. The shelter has had to euthanize five dogs that were not showing signs of recovery from distemper, shelter officials said.

Dr. Michael Vallon, shelter veterinarian, has been leading the shelter through the crisis over the past two weeks and said controlling the spread is his main priority.

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Vallon said distemper will spread virtually any way it can: air droplets, nose, eyes, mucus, urine. He said the virus can also be spread within the shelter by just handing the animals or through shared surfaces.

Buzbee said overcrowding at the shelter could be a factor that played into the highly contagious outbreak. The shelter has been at maximum capacity for at least the last six to nine months.

He said the shelter has an intake process that involves vaccinating animals upon arrival, but with the high volume of animals coming into care and staffing concerns slowing the process, it has been difficult to ensure immediate vaccination.

Vallon said a flood surrendered animals has created a hotbed for diseases. He said the unknown nature and vaccination history of the animals coming into the facility may contribute to the spread of disease.

The vaccine that protects dogs from distemper — DAPPv — also protects them from a range of illnesses, including canine influenza 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 subsequent vaccination or immunization, Vallon said, and dogs are usually asymptomatic for about 14 days.

“During that period they’re able to transmit it, but don’t have any symptoms,” Vallon said. “Even if we vaccinate them at that time, they still have it and the vaccination won’t do anything.”

The asymptomatic period and a lack of prior vaccination records both complicate contact tracing in the shelter, he said, making it hard to identify how the virus made its entrance.

Even more perplexing, Vallon said the early symptoms look very similar to common upper respiratory infections or kennel cough, which are curable with treatment. Early symptoms include watery, mucus-filled eyes followed by discharge from the nose, fever, appetite loss, vomiting and diarrhea.

However, distemper symptoms don’t resolve quickly and can turn neurological, causing seizures. 

The mortality rate for distemper is 50% in adult dogs and jumps to 80% in puppies.

Vallon said there is no “magic bullet” to cure distemper, and antiviral or antibiotic medication is not typically used to treat the condition. Instead, Vallon and a small group of vet staff are working with about 190 dogs at the shelter to isolate sick animals and manage their symptoms.

Waco’s 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 this week suspended all dog intake and adoptions.

An outbreak among raccoons and foxes in March prompted Arlington city officials to issue a warning to pet owners, and the SPCA of Texas closed all of its locations in June after reporting case. A Midland shelter was forced to halt operations in September for the distemper. The disease temporarily shut down facilities in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas and Maryland over the year.

Buzbee said an easy way to prevent a pet from contracting the virus is to bring their food and water bowls inside overnight and to clean them often, as some wild animals, like raccoons, are known to carry distemper. Vallon said ferret owners should also be cautious of the disease.

Vallon said he knows vet fees can be a struggle, but distemper will be an endemic if pet owners don’t vaccinate their dogs. He said the DAPPv vaccine is even available over the counter for owners to administer themselves, which would save them the vet bill while protecting their pets from a range of diseases.

Waco Animal Shelter remains closed more than two weeks after distemper outbreak

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