Dallas Animal Services is sounding the alarm over an increase in canine upper respiratory illnesses, including 15 recent cases of canine distemper virus infection.
Distemper is a contagious disease that can lead to a host of health issues in dogs that are unvaccinated or have weakened immune systems. When distemper is not fatal, surviving dogs may suffer lasting neurological damage.
“We continue to monitor all of our dogs here and are making sure to isolate any dogs with upper respiratory or cold symptoms,” DAS spokeswoman Leah Backo said.
To contain these diseases, the DAS temporarily limits the consumption of dogs to emergency cases only. According to the American Veterinary Association, dogs infected with distemper “develop watery to pusy discharge from their eyes.” From there, symptoms can include fever, runny nose, cough, lethargy, loss of appetite, and vomiting.
The DAS quarantines dogs showing possible symptoms of distemper. If dog owners think their pet is showing symptoms, the DAS recommends isolating them and calling the vet.
Shelter staff have also changed cleaning protocols and increased the use of personal protective equipment. Meanwhile, DAS is providing more information about these diseases for people interested in adopting dogs.
The city has enlisted the help of University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine faculty member Dr. Cynda Crawford to help combat the surge in cases. Crawford is part of the university’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program.
“We continue to monitor all of our dogs here and make sure to isolate any dogs with upper respiratory or cold symptoms.” –Leah Backo, Dallas Animal Services
“The public needs to understand that this is not a dirty shelter problem,” Crawford said in a press release. “Distemper can enter shelters like Dallas Animal Services that follow best practices in health care, and they need the support and understanding of the community to help them as they work to resolve the situation.”
Even though the recent cases represent only 2% of the shelter’s canine population, MeLissa Webber, acting director of the DAS, said that they “take this threat very seriously…The health of the animals in our shelter and northern Texas is a top priority for DAS.”
According to the DAS, distemper is common and is often transmitted between dogs and wild animals, such as raccoons, foxes and skunks. It can take up to 20 days for a dog to show symptoms, and during this time the animal can transmit the virus to other animals.
“It’s been an exceptionally bad year for distemper in Texas; our program has worked with seven Texas shelters so far,” Crawford said.
In August, 50 dogs were still recovering from an outbreak of distemper that had swept through a Humane Society of North Texas shelter in Fort Worth the previous month. According to NBC, the shelter had to completely close its dog admission.
Backo guessed that the increase could be related to a lack of accessibility for veterinary care or missed pet vaccinations due to the pandemic. “The other piece is that this virus often spreads through wildlife in the wetter months, so an increase in rain could also be a contributing factor,” Backo said.
The best thing dog owners can do is make sure their pets are vaccinated. Michael Burk, a medical director for DAS, explained in a press release that’s why they vaccinate every dog against distemper “within minutes of arriving at the shelter.”
“If your dog is up to date with his basic vaccinations, he should be highly protected from exposure to distemper,” Burk said. “If you are unsure of your dog’s vaccination status, it is important that you contact your veterinarian.”
DAS is cautious about the recent spike in cases, but Webber wants to assure potential adopters that there are still more than 300 healthy dogs at the shelter looking for homes.
“We want to be transparent, but we also don’t want to scare off potential adopters and foster homes,” Webber added. “We are nearing capacity, and we desperately need animal lovers to help us ensure that our healthy dogs always receive the positive outcomes they deserve.”