Animal Welfare

Dogs at Dallas Animal Shelter Hit by Surge in Distemper and Upper Respiratory Diseases

Jacob Vaughn
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Dallas Animal Services is sounding the alarm on a rise in canine upper respiratory disease, including 15 recent cases of distemper virus infection.

Canine distemper is a contagious illness that can result in a slew of health problems in dogs that are unvaccinated or have a weakened immune system. When distemper isn't fatal, dogs that survive can suffer lasting neurological damage.

“We’re continuing to monitor all of our dogs here and making sure to isolate any dog with any upper respiratory or cold symptoms,” DAS spokesperson Leah Backo said

To contain these diseases, DAS is temporarily limiting dog intake to emergency cases only. According to the American Veterinary Association, dogs infected with distemper “develop watery to pus-like discharge from their eyes.” From there, symptoms could include a fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite and vomiting.

DAS is quarantining dogs with possible distemper symptoms. If dog owners think their pet is exhibiting symptoms, DAS says you should isolate it and call 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 looking to adopt dogs.

The city enlisted the help of Dr. Cynda Crawford, a faculty member at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, to help fight the rise in cases. Crawford is with the university's Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program.

"We’re continuing to monitor all of our dogs here and making sure to isolate any dog with any upper respiratory or cold symptoms." – Leah Backo, Dallas Animal Services

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“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 healthcare best practices, and they need community support and understanding to assist them as they work to resolve the situation.”

Even though the recent cases only make up 2% of the shelter’s dog population, MeLissa Webber, the interim director at DAS, said they "are taking this threat very seriously ... The health of the animals in our shelter and North Texas is a top priority for DAS."

According to DAS, distemper is common and is often transferred between dogs and wildlife, like raccoons, foxes and skunks. It can take up to 20 days for a dog to show symptoms, and in that time the animal can spread the virus to other animals.

“This has been an exceptionally bad year for distemper in Texas; so far, our program has worked with seven Texas shelters,” Crawford said.

In August, 50 dogs were still recovering from a distemper outbreak that swept through a Humane Society of North Texas shelter in Fort Worth during the previous month. According to NBC, the shelter had to shut down its dog intake completely.

Backo guessed that the rise could be related to a lack of accessibility for veterinary care or missed pet vaccinations due to the pandemic. “The other component is that this virus is often spread through wildlife in 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 DAS medical manager, explained in a press release that this is why they vaccinate every dog for distemper “within minutes of arriving at the shelter.”

“If your dog is current on its basic vaccinations, it should be highly protected from distemper exposure,” Burk said. “If you are unsure of your dog’s vaccination status, it is important that you contact your veterinarian.”

DAS is being cautious about the recent rise in cases, but Webber wants to ensure potential adopters that there are still over 300 healthy dogs in the shelter looking for a home.

“We want to be transparent, but we also do not want to scare potential adopters and fosters,” Webber added. “We are nearing capacity, and we desperately need animal lovers to help us ensure that our healthy dogs still receive the positive outcomes they deserve.”