The Maricopa County Animal Care and Control East Shelter in Mesa remains closed to the public for the unforeseeable future as distemper testing began on more than 200 dogs.
County kennel officials reported they feared they were “on the cusp of a distemper outbreak” after several dogs tested positive for distemper and several others began showing symptoms of the disease.
“Thanks to the incredible support of our community, there were several adoptions and rescues this weekend and we are now testing 213 dogs today instead of over 300,” department spokeswoman Kim Powell said last week.
“We still don’t have an estimate of when the East Shelter will reopen,” he said. “We are using three different vendors to run the lab tests, so lead times for results may vary.”
Powell said the number of tests that have been completed was not yet available, but as of Oct. 28, there were 21 dogs that had been tested and eight had tested positive for the highly contagious viral disease.
“Unfortunately, dogs that test positive for distemper are humanely euthanized,” Powell said, adding that the last major outbreak in East Shelter was in 2019.
In September, the department issued a call for people for adoption and foster care due to the overcrowding of dogs at its two shelters (855 animals in 755 kennels), which caused some dogs to sleep together.
There is no cure for canine distemper, which is often fatal. Surviving dogs often have permanent and irreparable damage to their nervous systems, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
However, other experts say that it is entirely possible to recover from the disease, depending on the strength of the dog’s immune system and the strain of the distemper. It can take up to two months to fully recover.
Initially, infected dogs will develop a watery or pus-like discharge from the eyes and later develop a fever, runny nose, cough, lethargy, reduced appetite and vomiting, according to the association.
As the virus attacks the nervous system, infected dogs develop circling behavior, head tilting, muscle spasms, seizures with jaw chewing movements and salivation, convulsions 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 across the country this year, according to Powell.
However, critics were quick to criticize the county.
“These poor dogs,” one woman wrote on social media. “This is all going to get worse for them. It’s been going on for a while. Last year I adopted a sick puppy that I didn’t get to meet because he possibly had distemper!”
And another wrote, “what about the remaining dogs in East today?
“I can answer that they probably leave it in garbage bags… this group doesn’t care. If they did, we would have proper protocols to protect dogs from exactly things like this.”
Powell dismissed the criticism.
“Everyone has the right to express their opinions on social media,” he said. “Distemper has been in our community for a long time.
“He finds his way to the shelter because the dogs come with insufficient vaccinations,” he continued. “It is not a productive use of our time to review and respond to comments online.”
Powell described the shelter’s protocol with new arrivals.
“When an animal enters our shelter, many times we don’t have the vaccination history, so they are vaccinated upon entry,” he said. “One of the vaccines given is for distemper (DA2PP), which requires a booster after two to four weeks.”
She said dogs coming into the shelter aren’t usually initially quarantined, as the shelter doesn’t have the space to make that possible, but there is an area to quarantine dogs.
And, until further notice, all dogs at East Shelter will remain in their kennels to help reduce the potential spread of disease, according to Powell.
Dogs will not be allowed out of their kennels for walks, grooming and meet-and-greet, he said.
The infection spreads through airborne exposure through sneezing or coughing. The virus can also be spread through shared food and water bowls.
Powell said all is business as usual at the county’s much larger West Shelter in Phoenix and adoption fees will not be collected until further notice.
“Currently there are no signs of a distemper outbreak at our western facility, however once testing is complete and the eastern ones reopen, we may test dogs showing signs of illness just to be sure,” he said. , and I add:
“It’s important to note that dogs showing signs of illness may also have a different upper respiratory infection, such as kennel cough.”
Animal activist Lorena Bader said “many of us knew it was only a matter of time before this happened again.”
Bader, a retired school teacher, is circulating a petition on change.org demanding a change in the county’s two animal shelters, including their administrative staff.
“They did nothing after the 2019 distemper outbreak in East except give the dogs a booster shot,” Bader said. “Then in June 2021, West had an outbreak. An anonymous staff member sent me several emails detailing the conditions that led to the outbreak. Dogs are quarantined for more than two months in some cases. I don’t think they ever got rid of it, but what they did was stop testing and stop tracking dogs that probably 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.”