Learning from the Memphis Animal Shelter tragedy
By Trisha Gurley
March was a sad month for the Memphis Animal Shelter. Twenty-five dogs had to be euthanized due to a distemper outbreak at the shelter. Distemper seems to be one of those things that we’ve all heard of but can’t define. When I talked about the depressing situation with people, I’d usually hear, “Distemper? That’s awful! Uh…what is distemper, exactly? Can cats get it too?”
Canine distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus and is not limited to domestic dogs. Wild canines such as wolves, coyotes, and foxes are also at risk. Domestic dogs tend to contract distemper in the fall and winter seasons, but wild animals tend to be affected in the spring and summer months, because younger animals are less resistant to the virus.
Distemper is highly communicable. It is transmitted via air or direct contact. Even contaminated objects and materials can transmit. The virus is also present in animal wastes. Given the close quarters of the shelter, the distemper transmission was extremely difficult to contain. Once distemper has manifested itself, the mortality rate is close to 100%.
How can you tell if a dog has distemper? Symptoms include vomiting, coughing, diarrhea, refusal to eat, and eye discharge. Central nervous system disturbances can be present as well. Distemper, like rabies vaccine, is required for domestic pets. Whether or not your dog has been vaccinated, get him to a veterinarian ASAP if these symptoms are present in your dog!
Feline distemper is different from canine, in that it is caused by a parvovirus. Like canine, it is also extremely contagious and deadly. Ferrets, weasels, raccoons, and skunks can also contract it. The virus is transmitted in the bodily wastes and saliva of an infected animal and can be transmitted for months after a cat recovers. Fleas and shared cat bedding can spread the virus too. Insects that come in contact or consume infected matter can spread feline distemper as well. Inhalation or consuming the infected material is the main means of feline infection.
A cat with distemper has similar symptoms of canine – refusal to eat, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. As with dogs, get to a veterinarian if your cat displays any of these symptoms. Feline distemper can kill cats in 24 hours or less if no treatment is sought, and it is a wrenching death. Treatment involves blood transfusions, vitamin injections for electrolyte balance, and antibiotics.
Simple preventive veterinary care and common sense will keep your pets safe and well. As unfortunate as the recent Memphis Animal Shelter case was, it certainly does not mean shelter pets are unsafe to adopt. I have adopted shelter animals and know multiple people who have shelter pets, and none of us have had to deal with distemper or any shelter or kennel illnesses. Adopting a shelter animal will help ease overcrowding and lower disease risk! If you can’t adopt, help all animals by having your own pets spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and indoors.