Quarantine in place as Alachua County Animal Services staff fight distemper outbreak

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ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. (WCJB) -- Alachua County Animal Services' shelter is under quarantine as staff fight an outbreak of canine distemper, with six dogs euthanized for the virus since it was discovered on Saturday.

Staff euthanized two puppies Saturday morning after they tested positive for distemper, a viral infection that affects multiple systems in a dog's body. Four more dogs were euthanized for the virus on Wednesday.

“The reason that things like this come to an open admissions shelter in the Southeast is because of the pool of unvaccinated animals in our community,” said Ed Williams, the Director of Alachua County Animal Services.

Williams said the virus was most likely brought in by a stray dog. Any dog brought into the shelter is vaccinated for distemper, but there is a three week incubation period before symptoms show. Williams said the dog (or dogs) that spread the infection was most likely infected before entering the shelter.

"All dogs here are vaccinated upon intake for these things but a vaccination, if the dog had already been exposed to it, particularly if it was a young dog and it didn't have any vaccines onboard, then vaccines aren't a cure, they're a preventative," Williams said.

On Saturday afternoon, 18 other dogs were euthanized as the shelter faced an overcrowding issue. Before the outbreak, the shelter was already over capacity. The 18 euthanized were chosen based on factors like health, behavior, and length of stay.

"Sometimes overcrowding in a shelter can lead to additional illness," Williams said.

TV20 spoke with a volunteer who asked to remain anonymous.

"I've never seen 18 dogs in one day put down," the volunteer said.

In total, 24 dogs have been put down since the start of the outbreak on Saturday morning.

All six of the dogs euthanized for distemper were on the adoption list. Williams said any person who came in contact with the dogs, as well as anyone who adopted a dog in the period when the infected dogs were in the shelter, has been contacted and informed of what symptoms to look for. Some of the 18 dogs euthanized were also adoptable.

"I was devastated," the volunteer said. "I mean, I fell in love with several of those dogs just volunteering with them, and I know other volunteers have worked tirelessly to find fosters and adopters for these dogs."

Williams said the 18 euthanized dogs were on a pull list for local rescues but hadn't been taken in.

"It's abnormal for us in recent years, the past two years we've had a 90 percent plus release rate," Williams said. "And so, yeah, it's a little unusual to have to do that many at one time."

The shelter will remain under quarantine for two weeks following any discovery of distemper symptoms, meaning at least two weeks from Wednesday. No dogs can be adopted, but owners can still reclaim dogs.

Volunteers have been asked not to come to the shelter until the virus has come under control. A "hot zone" and a "clean zone" were established to separate dogs that have been exposed to distemper.

Williams encouraged dog owners, especially anyone owning young dogs, to get the animals vaccinated to prevent the spread of the virus.

The shelter is still open to adopt cats, apply for licenses and get animals vaccinated.