CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha-Charleston Animal Shelter will try to save as many dogs as possible, not euthanize them, after an outbreak of distemper discovered Wednesday.
The shelter will remain closed for at least two weeks, members of the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association decided in an emergency meeting Thursday morning.
Immediately after the meeting, four veterinarians examined all 96 dogs at the shelter to determine which are healthy and which might need to be put to sleep.
About 40 dogs were judged healthy for immediate adoption, shelter secretary Stephanie Gomez said Thursday afternoon.
Four dogs were found to be sick and will be put down, board vice-president Roger Wolfe said. The other 52 -- mostly stray dogs newly arrived at the shelter -- will be held in quarantine for observation.
Members of a volunteer group called Dog Bless who normally try to find homes for shelter dogs out-of-state will post photos of the healthy dogs on the shelter website. People who want to adopt can choose on the website (wvanimalshelter.com) and pick the dog up at the shelter.
"The shelter is not open," Gomez said. "If there's an animal they want, they can come in and pick up that dog." Initial pick-up hours were 2 to 5 p.m. on Thursday. On Thursday evening, the shelter's Facebook page said 20 dogs were adopted.
More pickups were scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. People should call in advance after choosing a dog from the website, Gomez said.
Staff members and volunteers are also trying to figure out how to deal with the stray dogs -- as many as 30 a week -- that animal control officers typically bring to the shelter.
For now, the shelter is not taking in any new animals except in extreme emergencies, Gomez said.
About a half-dozen veterinarians attended the emergency meeting to advise staff and board members about what to do about the outbreak of canine and feline distemper virus.
"This is very recent -- yesterday," Wolfe said. "We got confirmation of a couple of dogs that had distemper."
About a dozen animals at the shelter also were sick, he said. "Five cats, six puppies. They've already been put down.
"Early on, someone contacted the state Department of Agriculture. We were informed every animal needed to be put down. We were alarmed by that. We didn't think that was true."
State officials soon backed down from that position, Wolfe said. "We asked them to put it in writing. We asked them to come to this meeting." They did neither, he said.
Veterinarians offered a variety of ideas about how long it would take to clean the shelter. Lynn Frye, retired owner of Gateway Animal Hospital, said the cleanup could be finished in two days. Erica Drake said distemper can persist for up to two weeks, and recommended keeping the shelter closed for a month.
"One of the things I heard was a mandatory depopulation of the shelter was required," Fyre said. "That's not really true. Canine distemper virus is actually an easy virus to kill. To repopulate, all you need to do is clean and dry twice. That can be done in a day."
Cat distemper is more persistent, Frye said. "It take around two weeks."
Several vets said they were collecting information from colleges that specialize in animal care -- Virginia Tech and Ohio State.
Dog Bless founder Chelsea Staley said she had alerted the board several months ago after four dogs the group helped find homes for later were diagnosed with distemper. "I'd like to know what's been done."
Donna Pauley, the shelter director, said those dogs were strays that had been brought in after hours, when no one is on hand to vaccinate the dogs. Normally all dogs in the shelter are vaccinated for distemper and other diseases.
But it takes weeks for the immunization to take full effect, vets said, so some dogs can get sick even if they've been vaccinated.
"Your procedures are the best you can do," said Sarah Stephenson of Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital in Kanawha City. "Eight hours isn't going to make a difference."
Dog Bless volunteers will try to find temporary "foster" homes for new strays that normally would be dropped off at the center, Wolfe said.
He was unsure how long canines would be held in quarantine. "I guess it depends on how long it takes to get the 40 [healthy] dogs out." Once the 40 are out, their cages can be sterilized and quarantined dogs moved there.
"They have varying degrees of issues," he said of the 52 being held for observation. Some could be fairly healthy, but suffering from kennel cough, he said.
Shelter staff could get extra help for cleaning the facility, said Harry Carpenter, a board member and who works with the Kanawha Sheriff Department's home confinement program. He said work release prisoners may be assigned to the shelter for clean-up tasks.
Shelter employees and vets took issue with social media comments that blamed the outbreak on unsanitary conditions.
"This did not originate at the shelter," said Leigh Nida of Good Shepherd. "It originated when owners drop sick dogs at the shelter. It's not negligence at the shelter. It's negligence by owners."
Reach Jim Balow at ba...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.