Disease Infects Shelter’S Cat Population

More than 100 destroyed due to feline herpes

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It was their worst nightmare come true:

This past week, employees of the Payson Humane Society had to euthanize the entire cat population at the animal shelter due to an insidious disease.

“We were bawling our heads off,” animal shelter manager Diane Fitzpatrick said.

Feline herpes is a highly contagious disease that was first discovered to have infected cats at the shelter a couple of months ago. Seven weeks ago, with the help of local veterinarian Dr. Alan Hallman, workers began treating cats that were exhibiting symptoms of the disease, but soon realized they were fighting a losing battle.

“There was no other option but to depopulate, disinfect and try to start fresh,” Hallman said. “The virus tends to strike younger kittens much more so than older ones, but at the shelter, we’ve seen all ages affected by the herpes.”

Fitzpatrick said her crew began noticing cold-like symptoms in the cats, which ranged from runny noses to watery eyes.

“It was very resistant to treatment nothing would kill the virus,” Hallman said. “That’s when we discovered it was feline herpes. We thought we had a handle on it.”

Feline herpes is mainly an upper-respiratory disease that strikes the feline’s eyes and nasal passages. It can cause severe eye infections, and in some cases, even rupture the cat’s cornea.

“In younger kittens, we’ve even seen the disease going systemic and destroying the organs,” Hallman said.

While the disease is not necessarily fatal, there is no cure, he said. “Once they get it, they get it for life,” he said.

Feline herpes also is easily transmitted from cat to cat.

“Dogs are not susceptible to feline herpes, nor are humans,” he said.

“However, either could transmit the disease from an infected cat to an uninfected cat. If the cat has a runny nose and wipes it on its side, then you touch the secretion, and touch another cat, you could transfer the disease.”

And its symptoms are not always easily visible. For example, Fitzpatrick said, if you look at your cat and see that it has a dry nose, that doesn’t mean that it has not been infected.

“Look at its flank,” she said. “We’ve seen several of our cats that had dry noses, but when we looked closer, we saw patches on their flanks where they had just wiped. A dry nose doesn’t mean they haven’t been infected.”

Your cat could also be infected and not show any symptoms at all, but could still be a carrier of the disease.

Hallman said the virus is viable at room temperature for 30 days or more.

By the end of this week, more than 100 cats will have been euthanized, and the shelter will be closed over the weekend while crews disinfect the entire facility. Workers also have tossed out every scratching post, toy and litterbox to make sure the virus doesn’t survive the holocaust.

“I felt like Schindler, having to make this decision,” said Pat Boettcher, president of the Payson Humane Society board of directors. “But it was the only decision we could make. It was the only thing we could do to make sure we wiped out the virus completely.”

The shelter will reopen Monday for dog adoptions, but for the next two weeks, the shelter will be unable to accept any cats. Once the shelter is able to take cats again, Boettcher said the felines will be put in an isolation cage for 10 days before they are put up for adoption.

“The good news in all of this is that Dr. Hallman was able to find a vaccine for feline herpes that is only $2 a dose,” Boettcher said. “We ordered 200 doses immediately, and we’ll vaccinate every cat that comes to the shelter.”

The bad news is that any kitten or cat adopted from the shelter in the past few months may also carry the virus.

Fitzpatrick recommends closely examining your cat to look for symptoms, or take it to your veterinarian for a professional diagnosis. If the cat you adopted has been infected, and you want to return it, the shelter will take it back and give you a credit for a future adoption.

While workers at the animal shelter deal with this tragedy, Boettcher strongly urges compassion and understanding from the public.

“This is the hardest thing any of us have ever had to do,” she said. “This could have been caused by one infected cat coming in to the shelter. It could not have been helped, and the last thing the staff needs is to be put under more stress.”

As such, anyone with questions about the outbreak of feline herpes at the shelter, or about a recent adoption, can call Boettcher at (928) 474-9833. Because the humane society will be struggling financially to replace all of the cat supplies, donations also can be made by calling Boettcher.

Facts about feline herpes

FHV-1 occurs worldwide. Cats of all ages and breeds are susceptible, though it’s more common among the following:

  • kittens, especially kittens born to infected mothers;
  • multi-cat households, catteries, and pet adoption shelters;
  • cats that are subject to overcrowding;
  • pregnant cats that are lactating;
  • sick cats (especially sickness associated with a weakened immune system or other respiratory infection);
  • unvaccinated cats.

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