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Disease outbreak impacts RivCo’s largest animal shelter

Dave Parker / CC BY 2.0

Riverside County's largest animal shelter is under siege from a contagious pathogen that's causing canines to suffer severe respiratory illness, which has turned fatal in multiple instances, authorities said today, prompting a call for help from the public to foster healthy shelter pets to lower their exposure risks.   

An outbreak of the bacterial infection streptococcus zoopidemicus, or "strep zoo," began at the start of the month, quickly spreading among dogs at the Western Riverside County Animal Shelter in Jurupa Valley, according to the Department of Animal Services.  

The outbreak was coincident with a surge in impoundments that led to the shelter hitting maximum capacity -- 450 -- in its dog kennels.   

According to officials, five dogs have died as a direct result of strep zoo infections, and another eight canines have shown signs of suffering severe pneumonia, stemming from exposure.

The shelter is currently loaded with 330 dogs, and the strain is weighing on pets and medical resources, according to the Department of Animal Services.

"We are seeking emergency foster placements for at least 100 healthy, adoptable dogs," agency Director Erin Gettis said. "This will not only protect these dogs from getting sick but will allow the shelter to medically isolate dogs that may have been exposed to a sick dog."

Gettis emphasized that anyone willing to take in a shelter dog temporarily should not have other canines at home, just as a precaution. Other animals are not at risk.

Chief Veterinarian Dr. Sara Strongin told City News Service that there's no clear identifiable point of origin for the strep zoo outbreak.   

"Overcrowded conditions can have a lot to do with it," Strongin said. "The more animals in a shelter, the higher the levels of stress in close confinement. Some dogs may not be capable of warding off the disease."  

She said that in some cases, dogs may be carriers of the pathogen but are asymptomatic, or have developed innate immunities so that they're not impacted, while other dogs aren't equipped to cope and suffer the worst.   

Strongin said canines in private residences are at low risk of exposure.   

Shelter staff have resorted to euthanizing what Department of Animal Services spokesman John Welsh referred to as "red-listed length-of-stay dogs" to free up capacity.

"These are the older animals that might be in poor health and have been here a long time, nobody wants to take them,'' Welsh told CNS. "So they're being humanely euthanized to prevent the disease from spreading."  

Gettis said the "higher euthanasia" activity probably has not gone unnoticed by pet advocates and rescue organizations, but "this is because we are at shelter capacity and dogs are getting very sick."

"Some dogs have unfortunately caught strep zoo, and others are being impacted by less severe illnesses,'' she said. "This is why we've made this urgent plea for help."

Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 19, more than 800 canines rotated through the shelter as impoundments. However, thanks to adopters, 331 were saved, while another 263 were reclaimed by owners, and 238 went to rescue partner organizations, according to Welsh.

"Our immediate goal is to get assistance from the public to reduce the shelter population and to prevent any additional deaths,'' Gettis said.   

Anyone interested in fostering a sheltered pet was encouraged to contact the facility directly at 951-358-7387.

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