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Fast-acting virus claims cats' lives

Officials at all three Pinellas animal shelters are taking extensive cleaning and quarantine measures to try to contain the disease.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2001

Officials at all three Pinellas animal shelters are taking extensive cleaning and quarantine measures to try to contain the disease.

Dozens of stray cats across Pinellas County have died this month from a virus so virulent it can kill a kitten overnight.

"It strikes so quickly that in the morning, they can be fine, then you see a spike in temperature and within 24 hours they're dead," said Rick Chaboudy, executive director of the Humane Society of North Pinellas.

A routine vaccine can prevent pet cats from getting the disease, but among strays, it is so contagious that shelters routinely destroy both animals that contract it and others exposed to it.

The Humane Society has euthanized 17 cats with the virus in the last month.

At Pinellas County Animal Services, about 30 to 40 cats were euthanized after contracting the virus this month. About the same number were humanely destroyed after being exposed to the virus, although many weren't adoptable and would have been put down anyway, said veterinarian Dr. Welch Agnew, assistant director.

At the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Pinellas County, five cats have died from feline distemper, or panleukopenia, executive director Beth Lockwood said.

No cases have been reported at Pasco County Animal Services, but most of the cats brought to the Humane Society were strays that people found and brought to the shelter from Pasco, Chaboudy said.

This is the first widespread outbreak of the disease in Pinellas for at least the past five or six years, and possibly longer, shelter officials said.

"You have to believe we've had some cases in the past, but we've never had an outbreak where we had 17 cases," Chaboudy said.

Officials at all three Pinellas shelters said they have started elaborate cleaning and quarantine measures to try to contain the virus. Those include disposable food bowls and litter pans, wearing gowns and disposable gloves and washing cages and floors with bleach solution each day.

"Everyone is sort of walking on broken eggshells as far as cleaning and maintenance," said Tiffany Bogart, a Humane Society veterinarian.

The Humane Society has quarantined so many cats that cages have overflowed into staffers' offices. Animal Services has emptied the play area at the front of the shelter where kittens usually play together to tempt prospective adopters.

At the SPCA, Lockwood said the shelter began stringent cleaning measures after battling an outbreak of upper respiratory diseases last year. They've taken more precautions since this outbreak began.

"We're fortunate we haven't had a huge outbreak," she said. "We've been very careful."

The virus can easily be transmitted from one cat to another. But it also can survive for more than a year on floors, cages, toys and other surfaces.

This month's issue of Animal Sheltering magazine says experts aren't sure why the disease is on the rise, but that it has decimated shelters from New Mexico to Maine. In one week, a Pittsburgh shelter had to humanely destroy 130 cats that had the disease. Local shelter officials urged cat owners to check their pets' vaccinations, keep them away from strays and vaccinate kittens before bringing them to a shelter.

Despite the name, feline distemper is a parvovirus, similar to one that dogs get. It's not dangerous to people, but people can pick up the virus on their hands, clothing or shoes and spread it to other cats.

The virus is especially deadly to kittens. It attacks white blood cells and kills rapidly growing cells, making kittens more vulnerable. That's especially a problem right now, because cats give birth most often in the spring. This time of year, shelters are usually watching kittens be adopted, not fighting to keep them alive.

"It hit at a terrible time," Agnew said.

The shelter has some kittens available to adopt but is delaying adoptions until staffers are sure they're healthy, Agnew said.

Although vaccine can prevent the disease, it takes about two weeks to take effect. That gap makes it even more difficult for the shelters to keep the disease from spreading.

Bogart said she expects the outbreak to continue for another month to six weeks. Both she and Agnew said they hope they've already seen the worst.

"We're hoping it's cooled down a bit," Agnew said. "But we're still on the lookout for it."

Feline distemper

Cause: virus

Symptoms: fever, lethargy, dehydration, vomiting, diarrhea; kittens most at risk

Prevention: vaccine, stringent cleaning and quarantine

Treatment: IV fluids, antibiotics to prevent secondary infections

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