Farmington Regional Animal Shelter still battling outbreak of canine distemper

Dog adoptions not expected to resume at facility until next week

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Canine distemper is a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of dogs, ferrets and some wildlife species such as raccoons and skunks.
  • It can be fatal and is spread primarily through airborne exposure such as sneezing, coughing or barking.
  • It also can be transmitted through shared food, water bowls and other items.

FARMINGTON — Staff members at the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter are fighting to bring an outbreak of canine distemper among the facility's dog population under control, but they estimate it will be several more days before the shelter can resume normal operations.

City officials issued a news release on Nov. 7 reporting the outbreak had occurred, and they indicated that all intake of stray or surrendered dogs had been halted and that all dog adoptions had been suspended, as well.

Stacie Voss, the animal welfare director for the shelter, said Nov. 11 that even though staff members were making progress in containing the disease, the situation at the shelter had not changed, and she did not anticipate the shelter resuming intake of dogs and allowing dogs to be adopted for perhaps another week.

According to the news release, canine distemper is a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of dogs, ferrets and some wildlife species such as raccoons and skunks. It can be fatal and is spread primarily through airborne exposure such as sneezing, coughing or barking. It also can be transmitted through shared food, water bowls and other items, the release states.

Farmington Regional Animal Shelter is fighting an outbreak of canine distemper and has stopped taking in new surrenders of dogs.

Symptoms of canine distemper include pus discharge from the eyes and nose, fever, coughing and vomiting.

Voss said the shelter had not seen any new cases of the disease since implementing the shutdown.

“I’m cautiously optimistic we’re through the worst of it,” she said.

She estimated it would be Monday, Nov. 21 before the shelter is ready to resume dog adoptions and the intake of stray or surrendered dogs.

Despite the efforts of the shelter staff, the canine distemper outbreak already has taken a heavy toll on the shelter’s dog population, Voss said. Cases of the disease have been spotted in the dog population on and off since September, she said, and the staff has been trying to contain it since then by isolating the sick dogs, testing the others and performing deep cleaning of the facilities.

But the facility lost 30 dogs to the disease in September and another 30 in October. Finally, on Nov. 7, Voss took the step of temporarily discontinuing adoptions and intakes in an effort to get a handle on the situation.

Even though canine distemper can be passed to other wildlife species, it cannot be transmitted to cats, she said, so the shelter’s feline population has not been affected by the outbreak.

She said the staff’s efforts to fight the outbreak have been hampered by the fact that the shelter does not have a huge isolation area, making it difficult to keep infected and healthy dogs separated. She said canine distemper also mimics the common kennel cough in its early stages, so the shelter staff did not realize what it was dealing with until the disease already had a strong foothold in the facility.

“There’s no immediate test for it, either,” she said. “We had to send swab samples out (to be tested), and we didn’t get the results back for two or three days.”

Voss likened the situation at the shelter to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when few public officials grasped the gravity of the situation.

Farmington is hardly alone in having to deal with the fallout from canine distemper, Voss said.

“We have a lot of unvaccinated animals, and distemper is a big thing in this area,” she said. “But there have been distemper outbreaks throughout the country.”

This episode likely was made worse by the fact that pet populations have soared in shelters across the country, including in Farmington, for most of 2022, she said. According to the news release, the shelter has taken in more than 600 dogs and puppies since Aug. 1 — most of which were unvaccinated, Voss said.

“Overcrowding and being full doesn’t help the situation,” she said.

Voss emphasized that cat adoptions are continuing at the shelter, and the institution has a sizable number of felines from which to choose, she said.

Anyone who wishes to turn in a stray dog is advised to foster it temporarily or try to find a home for it via social media sites such as Facebook or Next Door. The shelter is not accepting strays or owner-surrendered dogs in an effort to halt the in-shelter spread of the disease.

According to the news release, other local shelters and rescue groups, such as the Aztec Animal Shelter or the La Plata Humane Society, are continuing to adopt out animals.

For more information about the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter, call 505-599-1098.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 ormeasterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.