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Distemper fight easing up but not over

Seventeen healthy dogs are being kept in outdoor kennels at the Hill Country Humane Society to help prevent exposure to the canine distemper virus from infected dogs quarantined inside the building. While it is less than ideal to keep the dogs outdoors in the Texas heat, shelter management has chosen to do so to mitigate the risk of further spreading the deadly virus. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

An end is in sight to the Hill Country Humane Society’s battle against an outbreak of canine distemper, a contagious and deadly virus. Since June 3, the virus has upended the shelter’s operations, killing eight dogs and forcing a stoppage of animal intakes.

The situation could have been much worse, HCHS leaders say.

“(Dealing with the outbreak) has definitely been really hard, and it’s nothing short of heartbreaking watching this happen to our dogs, but we are dedicated.” Hill Country Humane Society Executive Director Paighton Corley told DailyTrib.com during a July 3 tour of the shelter. ”Our team is fighting to save everybody that we can.”

A dog brought into the Buchanan Dam shelter from Kingsland in early June was carrying the virus, which likely led to the outbreak, Corley said.

In total, 44 of the 111 dogs at the Hill Country Humane Society showed symptoms of the virus after initial exposure to the infected dog. The virus can have a kill rate of 50 percent in adult dogs and up to 80 percent in puppies. Vaccination protocols kept the outbreak from reaching those levels, Corley said. 

The shelter director hopes the virus will have run its course within the next two to three weeks, but it won’t technically end until all dogs test negative. Right now, each exposed animal needs to be tested every few days at $88 a pop.

Canine distemper has no cure once it is contracted, but it can be prevented by vaccination. According to Corley, the dogs most impacted were those that had direct exposure immediately upon arrival, before they could be vaccinated. The rest were able to better manage the symptoms because vaccinations had time to set in.

Eight out of the 44 symptomatic dogs were humanely euthanized once they exhibited late-stage neurological symptoms, which inevitably lead to seizures and paralysis.

“Emotionally and physically, this (outbreak) has been one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with,” Hill Country Humane Society Medical Manager Theresa Hudler told DailyTrib.com as she performed a checkup on Bentley, one of the shelter’s quarantined dogs. “We’re rounding the corner on this, and we’re going to conquer it.”

Hill Country Humane Society Medical Manager Theresa Hudler performs a checkup on Bentley, a dog that might be suffering symptoms of the canine distemper virus. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Hudler has been at the shelter for 10 years and has never seen a case of active canine distemper come through its doors. She said the work has been especially challenging because of the close bonds between staff and dogs.  

The shelter has been divided into several quarantine rooms. Many of the healthy animals are being kept in outdoor kennels to help prevent exposure. However, even a vaccinated dog can carry the virus and pass it on.

“We’d never normally house dogs outside, especially in the Texas heat,” Corley said. “We’d never do this if we didn’t have distemper inside.”

The dogs are provided shade and water, but it is still less than ideal to keep them outdoors in the summer. Burnet-based metal fabricator Nailhead Spur donated several handmade kennels to the shelter. Corley estimated they would have cost $5,000 if purchased outright.

While the shelter has been unable to take in stray dogs since the outbreak began, staff and volunteers have still been hard at work in the community. Corley said they have vaccinated over 1,500 pets at free clinics over the course of the outbreak.

If you’re interested in lending a helping hand to the Hill Country Humane Society, it always needs donations and foster homes. Every dog taken out of the shelter and fostered in a home makes room for another dog in the kennels.

Learn more about fostering on the Hill Country Humane Society website or by contacting 512-793-5463 or info@hchstexas.com

dakota@thepicayune.com

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