When the RGV Humane Society took over operations of the Mission Animal Shelter in February, they unknowingly walked into a distemper outbreak. But after weeks of testing and euthanizing the infected, the shelter reported all animals clear of the deadly disease. The next step is ensuring surges like this never happen again.
Distemper is a deadly airborne virus that infects many types of animals but mainly dogs in shelters with high populations and communities without a rigorous vaccination protocol. It is exceedingly rare for animals to survive the disease due to the current state of veterinary care. Most often, shelters euthanize to stop the spread of infection.
RGV Humane Society Executive Director Luis Quintanilla said prevention is the only way to treat the problem. So, the Humane Society started their monthly low-cost vaccination clinics in Hidalgo County ahead of schedule.
“Because of all of the distemper that we [saw] coming in, we thought, ‘OK well we have to find a way to make the population healthy, or at least try to, before they ever arrive at the shelter,’” Quintanilla said. “So that’s what we’re doing now is trying to really take those steps to sort of get proactive and not wait until the animals arrive.”
The Palm Valley Animal Society in Edinburg also reported a distemper outbreak in their shelter last month. But the RGVHS executive director said Hidalgo County, as a whole, has had an ongoing issue with distemper and parvovirus long before the recent outbreak. The neighboring Cameron County, however, does not have the same problem.
The RGV Humane Society, formerly the Harlingen Humane Society, said they have kept disease outbreaks at bay in the lower Valley for 10-15 years. Quintanilla attributes the disease control directly to the vax clinics. He said Harlingen vaccinates an average of 300-550 animals each month. And because Hidalgo County did not have an organization doing comparable work, the animals in the upper Valley are more susceptible to the disease.
But now that the RGVHS partnered with the Mission Animal Shelter and can provide monthly clinics, low distemper rates are not too far away.
“It’s probably going to take at least a year, maybe a couple until we see at least a significant drop in those cases,” Quintanilla said. “Because there is no other animal welfare organization that’s even bothering to do this, what we’re trying to get out there is the fact that, getting those vaccines, is life and death for those dogs.”
The executive director said the Humane Society incurred at least $15,000 in unexpected expenses due to the disease outbreak. Their current budget for the Mission shelter is almost $1 million per year. The city provides a yearly $400,000, but the RGVHS has to raise the other $600,000 themselves. Quintanilla said the $15,000 went toward testing and additional protective equipment because they needed to get the Mission shelter up to a manageable level.
“Distemper is just a really scary, mostly fatal disease and really the only way to mitigate from either persisting or flaring up again is to try to shoot as many vaccines into the community as you possibly can,” the director said. “Because inevitably a lot of those animals will end up at our shelter or another shelter and then the cycle will continue.”
At least 25 dogs tested positive for distemper in the recent outbreak and were euthanized to avoid spreading. The shelter has photos and videos documenting the illnesses.
Still, the Mission Animal Shelter is over capacity with healthy animals. Weekly and sometimes daily, the shelter posts on Facebook that they are in dire need of help.
With more than 130 animals, the Mission shelter has to house dogs in office spaces, the bathroom and small cages in hallways because they no longer have room. Each day animals are at risk of euthanasia.
Although the Humane Society’s goal is to make Mission a no-kill city for pets, the clock is ticking. The original plan for achieving no-kill status was within the first 90 days of taking over the operation, which puts the deadline in early May.
Those interested in fostering or adopting can call the Mission Animal Shelter at 956.556.1607 or visit the location at 227 Abelino Farias St. in Mission.