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Volunteers upset as distemper outbreak kills cats at shelter 

A distemper outbreak at the SLO County Animal Shelter has killed at least 20 cats in recent weeks and reawakened long-simmering distrust between shelter officials and volunteers and supporters.

The American Veterinary Medical Association describes feline distemper, known as feline panleukopenia, as a highly contagious viral disease that causes symptoms ranging from severe diarrhea to vomiting, to fever and dehydration. It’s most deadly to kittens and up to 75 percent of cats younger than four months of age that contact the virus die.

Vaccinations are effective against the disease, but kittens aren’t generally given the shots until they are between six and eight weeks of age.

Eric Anderson, the shelter director, said the outbreak is now under control and infected cats have been quarantined. He said some cats likely arrived at the shelter already infected—vaccines are not effective after infection—and said other cats who died were too young to receive the vaccine.

Two volunteers for the shelter, however, gave different accounts.

Both volunteers spoke with New Times under the promise of anonymity, noting that Anderson has told volunteers they are not allowed to discuss shelter matters with the press. Indeed, the County Sheriff-Coroner’s office recently began requiring that volunteers sign pledges affirming that they would not speak with the media, although that mandate was put on hold in the wake of questions by members of the County Board of Supervisors.

Since, the volunteers said, they have been told they can be dismissed for virtually any reason. Anderson said there’s no official ban on talking with the press, but said he asks that volunteers raise any concerns with him.

One volunteer said 24 cats have died of distemper since June 30. The volunteers said approximately 45 were euthanized for, or died of, the disease in the weeks prior. The volunteer listed names and dates of the cats and kittens in question and recited from logs listing the number of animals euthanized, per day. Both volunteers said they believe the shelter was slow to implement an effective quarantine, and both volunteers said members of the public and inmates from the honor farm, who assist at the shelter, were still recently observed entering the supposedly quarantined area, without precautions in place to prevent the spread of the disease.

A volunteer also expressed concern that people were still being allowed to drop off cats and kittens, and that others adopting pets were not being warned of the outbreak.

A reporter’s recent visit to the shelter found no signs or visible information indicating there was an outbreak or quarantine. Anderson said there’s no requirement that the shelter publicize or report such outbreaks, but said the shelter hasn’t been intentionally secretive, noting that the outbreak was discussed in an e-mail to shelter workers.

The shelter had a similar distemper outbreak last fall, and Anderson said such outbreaks occur every year or two.

The County Grand Jury recently reported that jurors attempted to investigate “numerous citizen complaints” from volunteers about the shelter, ranging from animal neglect to violations of state law, but were ultimately “frustrated” in their investigation because they weren’t allowed to attend certain meetings.

The national Humane Society has also investigated the shelter’s operation. A report on the group’s findings is expected this month.

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