New Braunfels shelter fighting distemper 'disaster'

Director: 75 percent of animals euthanized

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas – Open only a year and a half, a long-awaited animal shelter operated by the Humane Society of New Braunfels is fighting a distemper "disaster."

"When you lose this many family members, to us it is a disaster," said Denise Cox, the organization's executive director. "It's like you're losing a child."

Cox said she was unable to provide an exact number, but estimates 75 percent of its dogs and cats were euthanized over the weekend, that either had symptoms or were not yet vaccinated against the highly contagious virus.

"When it was confirmed what it was, it knocked us down right then and there," Cox said.

She said local veterinarians, the Texas Department of Health Services that oversees animal shelters, the Texas A&M veterinary school, and others have been consulted about what to do about the deadly outbreaks.

She said distemper starts much like a respiratory infection.

"They'll start sneezing, coughing. They'll get the goopy eyes, and then they'll start getting really thin, really lethargic and go down from there," Cox said.

To try to further contain its spread, Cox said volunteers and cleaning supplies are still needed to disinfect the new shelter from top to bottom.

"Anything we've touched," Cox said.

She said the shelter reeks of chlorine, and before they enter the building, people must first step in a tray of towels soaked in disinfectant.

In a statement, Cox said the infection started with one dog that was dropped off supposedly as a stray, although a veterinarian already had diagnosed it with distemper, who recommended it be put down.

She said instead, the people brought the diseased animal to the Humane Society.

Joe Lara, environmental services manager for the city of New Braunfels, said an investigation is underway, including whether the people responsible can be charged or held liable in some way.

He said the city and Comal County both have contracts with the Humane Society to take in stray animals or those needing quarantine.

Lara said those animals are being dropped off as usual because the shelter quickly disinfected the areas where those animals are kept.

"The diseased dog had only entered the shelter for a very brief time and had extremely limited exposure to the facility," said Cox.

She said so many lives could have been spared if only that first dog had been vaccinated against distemper, including the needed booster shots.

Cox said it's a lesson for other pet owners.

She said the shelter is reviewing its intake procedures since they have no veterinarian on site.

Cox said other shelters already vaccinate animals after they're brought in as a precaution because it is often impossible to confirm whether new arrivals have been vaccinated.

She said for now as a precaution, none of the remaining animals can be adopted until further notice, while the remainder are under a 30-day quarantine.

"The last thing we want is for an animal to go out into the community and it causes more problems," Cox said.

Lara said in the next week or two, the shelter should be closer than they are now to being back to normal.

"The incubation period being what it is, it's a waiting game at this point," he said.