HAZARD —A major outbreak of a fatal canine disease has swept through the Kentucky River Regional Animal Shelter in Perry County, forcing officials there to euthanize nearly all of the shelter’s dogs and temporarily halt the acceptance of new animals.
Most of the shelter’s dogs tested positive for canine distemper, according to Tammy Noble, who chairs the shelter’s board of directors and described the viral infection as painful to the animals and “very difficult to treat, and many dogs eventually die from their infection.”
Officials at the shelter have seen their fair share of sadness in dealing with sick animals, overcrowding and working on a very small budget, but this latest round of illness caused nearly 200 dogs to be put down. The few remaining dogs are being fostered or sent to rescue homes while the Perry County facility is undergoing an overhaul.
According to Dr. William Hagans, a veterinarian at the Appalachian Animal Hospital as well as a volunteer at the shelter, the disease was probably introduced by just one infected dog.
“Canine distemper virus is a common and highly contagious and fatal disease affecting dogs everywhere, especially dogs in shelters where they are at most risk of exposure,” he said. “It is very likely this virus was brought in by someone’s pet.”
Distemper can easily affect pets kept at home as much as animals in shelters. Noble added that the only way to protect against diseases like this is to keep all pet vaccinations up-to-date.
“This virus is also airborne. So if a coyote has it and comes around, chances are a family pet outside, if not protected, can get it,” said Noble. “Protected means vaccines annually. A Puppy vaccine on a dog is not enough.”
The Perry County shelter has had a very high kill rate in the past, but had started off 2012 well by working with many different rescue organizations to find homes for many of the cats and dogs. But the spread of this particular disease likely arose due to animals that have not had the proper care or immunizations before being brought to the shelter, Noble said.
While the shelter does work to find animals homes and make sure they are healthy, officials are planning on finding ways to do a better job of this.
“The shelter can help reduce risk for distemper by vaccinating all dogs on admission and creating more pathways for moving dogs quickly out of the shelter (and) into a home,” said Noble.
In the meantime, while officials work on the answers to the questions of how to run the shelter more efficiently, they are taking this opportunity to start over with a clean slate. All floors and walls are being sealed in an attempt to prevent the spread of this disease in the future.
They are also taking a new approach to taking in animals. Currently, animals can be dropped off anonymously 24 hours a day in drop-off cages outside the front gate. However, to avoid bringing disease into the shelter they are going to be much more strict about what animals come into the shelter.
Additionally, to help reduce the pet population of the area, and especially the shelter, they have started an income-based spay and neuter program. One of the major problems with the overcrowding is that people will bring litters of kittens and puppies and keep the mother without having her spayed. By offering lower cost spay and neuter services they hope to keep the number of litters being born in the area down.
Noble said that many people bring kittens and puppies thinking that they are young and cute, and people will adopt them because of that, though often times that is not the case.
“Truth is nearly 8,000 were euthanized last year alone at the KRRAS, 500 adopted which equals a 94 percent euthanization rate,” said Noble.
Noble said that several organizations have helped out with this crisis at the shelter, including testing labs in both California and Florida. Idexx Laboratories and the University of Florida donated $12,000 in testing. Idexx has also made a donation to the shelter to help with vaccinations and upgrades.
Locally, several businesses and individuals have all made donations to help with the renovations and changes being made at the shelter.
According to a sign at the shelter’s main gate on Monday, the shelter will begin accepting animals on Monday, July 30.