CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association has closed its doors following an outbreak of distemper in dogs and panleukopenia in cats.
The shelter will shut down for three weeks while workers disinfect and clean the facility, according to a post on the humane association's official Facebook page. There have been two confirmed cases of distemper, but about 80 animals could be put down because of the outbreak, according to the post.
"We cannot allow any of the 80 animals to leave the facility, as this increases the exposure in the community, so please do not inquire about adopting one of them," the post read.
About an hour later, the humane association's board of directors announced an emergency meeting for Thursday at 9 a.m.
"We will be reviewing the situation and seeing if we can come up with alternatives to putting all 80 animals to sleep," that post said.
Chelsea Staley, founder of the rescue group Dog Bless, said board members are considering quarantining the shelter and not allowing any new dogs to enter. Veterinarians would then treat those dogs and euthanize only the sickest animals.
Staley said Cabell County's animal shelter employed a similar strategy earlier this year and was able to save 60 percent of its dogs.
Dog Bless would be charged with finding foster homes for any new strays that come in while the shelter is closed. The group usually focuses on placing dogs from the shelter in foster homes and either sending those dogs to other rescue groups or placing them with new owners.
Shelter staff told the Daily Mail eight cats -- the shelter's entire feline population -- and seven puppies had already been euthanized Wednesday afternoon.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said Donna Clark, executive director of the shelter, called him Wednesday morning to report the outbreaks.
Following advice from the state Department of Agriculture and local veterinarians, Carper said the shelter began euthanizing affected animals.
"They have made the decision, as I understand it, to reduce the population," he said. "They feel they don't have any choice. I don't have any expertise in that area, but we support their decision."
Clark said she is not sure where the outbreak began.
"We never know what they're exposed to before they get here," she said.
She said one recently adopted puppy tested positive for distemper, but was at the shelter for less than 24 hours.
"It could have been exposed out there somewhere," she said.
Panleukopenia is similar to Parvovirus in dogs. Clark said she has no idea how the outbreak started, but said it quickly spread to all eight cats in the facility.
There is no treatment for the disease.
"Most of the time, they die almost instantly," Clark said.Few Options
Jamie Totten, a veterinarian at Cross Lanes Veterinary Hospital and a member of the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association's board of directors, said at this point, the shelter has few options other than euthanasia.
Totten said distemper is difficult to control once it has entered a shelter population.
"It's highly contagious when animals are highly concentrated in an area," she said.
She said vaccinations usually keep distemper under control. Though the shelter's policy is to vaccinate animals immediately upon arrival, it takes time for those vaccines to begin working. In the meantime, otherwise healthy animals can contract distemper.
"The question is, when is exposure taking place?" Totten said.
Totten said veterinarians from the Department of Agriculture are working with local veterinarians to find out. Animals are either entering the shelter already infected with distemper, or are being exposed before the vaccine becomes effective.
State Veterinarian Jewell Plumley said some vaccines take 10 days to begin working.
Totten said pets recently adopted from the shelter also might be in danger.
"There may be dogs that would be adopted out and six months, maybe even two years from now, develop neurological signs," she said.
Dogs begin showing symptoms of distemper in three ways: in their respiratory system, leading to sneezing and coughing; in their gastrointestinal system, causing vomiting, diarrhea or loss of appetite; and in their neurological system, when they begin to exhibit seizures or tremors.
Totten said in the early stages, distemper might be mistaken for milder conditions like kennel cough. Sometimes, dogs never progress past the virus' respiratory stage. Other times, Totten said it might be months or years before dogs begin showing signs of neurological illness.
And because distemper is a virus, there's no way to treat the condition. Totten said veterinarians are limited to treating the symptoms. Unfortunately, many common anti-seizure medications are ineffective on dogs with distemper.
Rescue Efforts in Jeopardy
Staley said the distemper outbreak could severely hamper her group's rescue efforts.
"We don't know how devastating this will be," she said.
Staley said the outbreak might end Dog Bless' relationship with other rescue groups that take the dogs from the group and place them with owners around the country.
She said rescue groups are usually hesitant to accept animals from a shelter with a history of distemper.
"I think rescues view it as a sign of other things that are faulty," she said. "We spend our whole lives trying to help those dogs. We're helpless now.
Staley said Dog Bless first alerted shelter officials to the possibility of a distemper outbreak in August.
A recently adopted dog died and, following a necropsy at Virginia Tech, came back "inconclusive but highly suggestive" of distemper.
"We were pretty sure in August this would be a wakeup call and something would be done," she said.
Staley said fears of an outbreak were quieted, however, as the shelter's population seemed to be getting healthier.
Then, just after Thanksgiving, a beagle rescue group took five dogs from Dog Bless.
Four of those dogs were suspected to have distemper. Three began seizing and had to be euthanized. When veterinarians sent samples from the dogs for lab tests, all three were positive.
Staley said the rescue group hasn't placed any dogs with rescue groups for the last six weeks because of the distemper outbreak. Dog Bless has placed 322 dogs in homes since last year.
She said her group will do anything it can to help the shelter become operational again.
State Veterinarian Jewell Plumley said the outbreak likely could have been avoided if the shelter had access to a new piece of equipment that can instantly diagnose Parvovirus and distemper
"If they had the ability to purchase this equipment, they could screen these dogs before they come into the facility," she said.
Plumley said the new device has only been available for the last two or three months, and costs about $18,000. She said the shelter also should invest in a quarantine area where sick animals could be housed.
Carper said the County Commission would be interested in doing "just about anything" to prevent another distemper outbreak.
"I think all of these things need to be looked at," he said.
Carper said he had never heard of the instant-read distemper test, but said if the state believes the shelter needs one, the state should help purchase one.