Feline Distemper Outbreak-Illinois
Virulent virus kills 93 shelter cats
A South Elgin facility is under quarantine after feline distemper claims mostly kittens with weaker immune system
By Scott Goldstein
Tribune staff reporter August 25, 2005
An aggressive feline virus that can kill within hours of the first symptoms has claimed 93 cats at a South Elgin animal shelter, attacking with unusual fierceness this summer, officials said Wednesday.
Most of the affected cats were kittens that had to be euthanized at the Anderson Animal Shelter, where officials quarantined the remaining cats and were working overtime to try to combat the outbreak.
The virus, commonly known as feline distemper or feline panleukopenia, last struck the facility three years ago, but this year it has come on particularly Strong and hit the shelter 12 days ago, said Dr. Sharon Colgan, the medical director.
"We worry about it every summer, but nobody knew ahead of this summer that it was going to be as severe as it's been," Colgan said.
The disease, which is also called feline parvovirus, doesn't affect humans, she said.
In June the virus struck TAILS Humane Society in De-Kalb and lingered for two months, said Executive Director Beth Drake, who would not say how many cats died during that outbreak.
Shelters are conducive to the spread of viruses because many of the animals are strays that haven't been vaccinated and are often kept in close quarters with other animals. But with growing pressure in recent years to avoid euthanasia whenever possible, some experts say shelter conditions are even more ripe for the spread of feline distemper and other highly contagious viruses.
"Shelters are under increased, intense pressure, both external and internal, not to euthanize animals," said Kate Pul-len, director of animal sheltering issues at the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington. "So when the public is clamoring for you not to euthanize animals, you have overcrowding. These shelters were not built for long-term housing."
Pullen said that although the movement toward no-kill shelters is admirable, it must be done in a way that does not lead to overcrowded facilities. Spay and neuter programs and community involvement aimed at keeping animals in homes and out of shelters are the ideal approach, she said
"I think what we have to ask ourselves is, what would we rather have?" Pullen said. "Would we rather have animals humanely euthanized.... Or do we want them dying from disease?"
Tests confirmed that 38 of the cats at the Anderson shelter had the virusThe other 55 cats either died of the disease or had to be put down because of strong suspicions that they were also infected, officials said.
Feline distemper typically incubates for 3 to 14 days, making it virtually impossible to identify before it has spread, Colgan said.
Symptoms include extreme lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea. Strays receive a vaccine when they arrive at the shelter, but it can take weeks to take effect.
The virus is not transmittable to other animals, but it can be carried on people's clothing, and other pets can carry it in their coats. It also can survive in the environment for up to one year, Colgan said.
"It is a very sturdy virus in the environment, and lots of cats get exposed to this virus," said Dr. Gerryll Hall, a shelter consultant based in Atlanta. "Where we have problems ... is any cats coming through the front door can have that virus. It's on their hair, it's in their stool, it's everywhere."
Colgan and Drake said many of the cases they have seen appear more virulent than in the past, sometimes killing the animals within a few hours.
The best way for cat owners to protect their pets is to keep them indoors at all times and to make sure they are up to date on all vaccinations, shelter officials said.
Treatments are available, but the prognosis is generally guarded, Colgan said. And with the welfare of hundreds of felines in close proximity at stake, there is no option but to euthanize infected animals, she said.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture has not seen an increase in reports of the feline virus, but a spokesman said he wasn't aware of the South Elgin case.
"Perhaps these cases are the first," said Jeff Squibb of the Agriculture Department. "And it could become a problem, but we have not received an elevated number of reports to this point."
Anderson, at 1000 S. LaFox St., currently has 285 cats and kittens. It has stopped accepting cats or adopting them out and has strictly quarantined all rooms where felines are housed.
Staff members must wear gowns, caps and shoe covers when entering the rooms and clean off with bleach after leaving them.
The shelter also has about 45 dogs and is still taking and placing them.
Colgan said they are hopeful that the outbreak is subsiding, but it is too early to tell. It will be at least several weeks before they can reopen for cat adoptions, she said. Deanna Davies, Anderson's executive director, said staff members are working extra hours to thoroughly clean the facility, but the deaths have shaken them.
"They're bearing very well, but it's taking its emotional toll, certainly," she said.