Health

Saturday, Jan 05 2013 10:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Our dogs are sick and are exporting disease

By The Bakersfield Californian

There's a deadly epidemic in Kern County that's been killing untold numbers here for years with hardly a blink from the public.

It's overwhelming. Yet, because the burden falls mostly on the Kern County Animal Control Shelter, it's hardly a topic of conversation outside animal activist realms.

Related Info

Listen up!

Lois Henry hosts "Californian Radio" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Residents are urged to get their dogs, particularly puppies (starting at six weeks), vaccinated. If you can't afford a private veterinarian, the county and city offer low-cost clinics in various parks throughout Bakersfield and outlying areas of the county.

Costs are minimal, $5 for rabies and $3 for DHPP, a combo distemper, hepatitus, parainfluenza and parvovirus (parvo) shot. Remember, puppies need three more parvo vaccinations at two- to three-week intervals to be fully protected from the disease.

Next clinics:

Jan. 12, The Park at River Walk in Bakersfield from 9 a.m. to noon.

Jan. 26, Beardsley Park, 9 a.m. to noon.

Free microchipping is also available as well as licenses, $15 for one year for altered pets, $30 for one year for unaltered pets.

You can also get lots of information about low-cost spay and neuter options at the clinics.

Call 661-321-3000 For More Information

Or visit the county's website at:

psbweb.co.kern.ca.us/AC_Internet/pdfs/VaccinationClinic.pdf

Or the city's site at:

bakersfieldcity.us/police/Operations/Animal_Control/City%20of%20Bakersfield%20Animal%20Control%202013%20clinic%20schedule%20flyer.pdf

Canine parvovirus is a highly contagious viral disease that can produce a life-threatening illness. The virus attacks rapidly, dividing cells in a dog's body, most severely affecting the intestinal tract. Parvovirus also attacks the white blood cells, and when young animals are infected, the virus can damage the heart muscle and cause lifelong cardiac problems.

The general symptoms of parvovirus are lethargy, severe vomiting, loss of appetite and bloody, foul-smelling diarrhea that can lead to life-threatening dehydration.

Parvovirus is extremely contagious and can be transmitted by any person, animal or object that comes in contact with an infected dog's feces. Highly resistant, the virus can live in the environment for months, and may survive on inanimate objects such as food bowls, shoes, clothes, carpet and floors. It is common for an unvaccinated dog to contract parvovirus from the streets, especially in urban areas where there are many dogs.

More information at aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/dog-care-parvovirus.aspx

Source: ASPCA.

VACCINATION CLINICS

I'm talking about parvovirus, a usually fatal intestinal disease that kills hundreds, if not thousands, of puppies here every year.

It popped up in the news recently when Healing Hearts Animal Rescue in Simi Valley was shut down for not getting sick animals treatment quickly enough. At least one dog died, apparently of parvo.

The animals had all come from

the Kern County shelter.

They were given to Healing Hearts on Dec. 20. Eight days later, the Humane Society of Ventura County had been called in and served Healing Hearts notice that the 21 dogs and cats needed veterinary care within 24 hours.

They didn't get it, so the Humane Society seized the animals and shut down the rescue group. Owner Penny Dulaff may even be facing criminal charges, according to news reports. Opinions vary as to whether Dulaff was running a true rescue or essentially a pet store, as Ventura Humane Society Director of Investigations John Brockus told news media outlets there.

Either way, it got me wondering how bad parvo is in our shelter and what's being done about it. I also worried that the many rescue groups and other shelters around the state that routinely obtain animals from Kern might slack off for fear of the virus.

This is one of those times when, after I got the answers, I wished I'd never asked the questions.

"The level of parvo in Kern is astronomical," Kern County Animal Control Director Jen Woodard told me matter of factly. "Pulling puppies from the shelter is a risk rescues take in Kern."

She said she didn't know of a rescue that had stopped taking puppies from Kern and that she and her staff are upfront about the risks.

She insisted parvo, and other diseases, aren't just a shelter problem. They are rampant in the community.

"We are getting what's a reflection in the community," she said, adding that private vets here also deal with high numbers of parvo cases.

A wider problem

A combination of our mild winters (hard frosts can apparently kill the virus, which likes to linger in the ground), low-income population and far-flung rural areas have made Kern a veritable parvo shangri-la.

"We definitely have a bigger problem with disease than other shelters."

It's been that way for years.

With so many more of Kern's animals now going to outside rescue groups, though, our dirty little secret is out. Woodard said she hadn't seen a drop in rescue numbers this year over last. And rescue operators I spoke with said disease is just a part of the deal with shelter dogs, though they try to be as careful as possible when selecting animals. The shelter is limited in what it can do, Woodard said.

"Part of the problem is this facility wasn't set up with adoption in mind," she said. "It was set up to catch and kill. Things have changed."

And it certainly wasn't set up with anywhere near the amount of animals now crowding its spaces in mind. The shelter has 175 kennels with two to 12 dogs in each kennel, Woodard told me.

On average, about 60 dogs or puppies are dumped on the shelter every day, according to monthly reports on the shelter's website. And there's a five-day mandatory hold for each dog. Granted, about the same number of dogs are rescued, adopted or euthanized every day. Still, that's a ton of animals crammed into small, shared spaces.

Puppies are the easiest to adopt out, but, of course, are also the most vulnerable to disease. To complicate matters further, parvo has up to a 14-day incubation period, meaning the dog might be sick but won't show symptoms or even test positive for up to two weeks. Puppies are typically adopted or rescued out of the shelter in a week, so, often end up dying on someone else's hands.

Solutions considered

The real, long-term answer lies in public awareness, Woodard said. Animal owners need to understand the importance of getting dogs vaccinated. And have the resources to get it done. To that end, I would suggest holding low-cost vaccination clinics weekly rather than twice monthly. (See box).

In the meantime, Woodard is starting a pilot program to separate pups from the general population and hold them longer than the usual five days. They only have space for about 30, however. And, unfortunately, if one puppy in a group does test positive for parvo during the extended quarantine, it, and any other pups it came in contact with, would have to be put down.

"We just don't have the resources to treat for it," she said. "Hopefully, though, we would catch it sooner and keep it from spreading."

It's a step, but an infinitesimally small one. The shelter is facing astounding odds. Perhaps an equally astounding response is required.

Stop adopting out animals that show any disease symptoms or that haven't been held long enough to test absolutely healthy. Woodard disagreed, fearing it would result in more shelter kills.

"Even extending the hold to 10 days (in the pilot program) means we are likely going to have to euthanize more animals to make space for the ones we are committing to," she wrote in an email.

OK, so stop accepting animals if there's no space. The shelter is only legally obligated to accept animals for which it has the capacity to care.

I would suggest our disease infestation, not to mention our ridiculous euthanasia numbers (18,527 as of November, 10,464 of those dogs), indicates the shelter has far exceeded its "capacity to care."

Such a move might also shake city and county "leaders" out of their respective silos and get them to treat this situation for what it is -- a crisis. And it would help Woodard live up to the promise she made back in August when she took this job, that no diseased animal should be adopted out of the shelter. On that, she and I agree completely.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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