SpokAnimal employees faced a heartbreaking decision when a deadly virus was discovered in several of the cats at the shelter: euthanize every cat or risk spreading the infection.
They opted to put down 70 cats.
“It was not a good night,” said Laura Thulean, SpokAnimal’s chief operating officer.
On July 30, shelter operators discovered that two litters of kittens brought to the shelter were infected with feline distemper, a viral infection that attacks the lining of the cat’s gastrointestinal tract. Cats with the virus experience bloody diarrhea and severe dehydration, and it is often fatal.
The kittens were strays, apparently found in a West Central garage, Thulean said. They didn’t start exhibiting symptoms until a few days after they’d been dropped off at SpokAnimal.
By then, it was too late. Other animals were already showing symptoms, and several random diagnostic tests showed many of the cats had the virus.
“Because it is so contagious, there was nothing else we could do,” Thulean said.
Several of the pets had already been adopted and were supposed to be picked up, Thulean said. Some owners decided to take their cats home and treat them, but there was at least one case where the cat was returned to SpokAnimal to be euthanized.
Pat Carter, a veterinarian at Spokane Cat Clinic, said the virus can remain contagious for up to two months after a cat contracts it. It’s fatal in 99 percent of kittens younger than three months, and older kittens have to go through rigorous antibiotics to recover.
In a confined environment like a shelter, it’s almost impossible to stop the virus from infecting every animal, he said.
“You hate to always have to put so many animals to sleep, but unfortunately that’s the only way to stop the virus in its tracks,” Carter said.
SpokAnimal employees spent the night cleaning and disinfecting the cat section of the shelter, Thulean said. All cages had to be disinfected multiple times and all bedding and plastic containers thrown out.
Cases of feline distemper appear to be increased, Thulean said, possibly due to the mild winter.
The virus is usually spread when cats walk where an infected cat has been and then lick their feet, Carter said. Outdoor cats are more likely to be affected by the virus.
Pets can be protected by keeping their annual distemper vaccines up to date, Carter said.
Carter said he believes the shelter made the right choice in euthanizing the animals.
“I used to work at a shelter, and it’s just heartbreaking, because you’re there to help animals but all of a sudden you have to destroy them,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation for everybody involved.”