ROCKINGHAM — Tamar Dawkins says she knew something was wrong when she went to pick up her two 8-year-old pit bulls from a rabies quarantine imposed because they had attacked and killed a couple of neighborhood dogs in April.
First, she said, the employee of the Richmond County Animal Shelter who freed her dogs from their cages led them out the back door and around the building to Dawkins’s vehicle and not through the front lobby, where she, staff and clients could see them.
It was only when she arrived home, Dawkins said, that she discovered that Saint, a brown pit bull, and his brother, Sinner — who is black and white — appeared to have lost a hefty amount of body weight, were lethargic and refused to eat.
She said she immediately suspected canine distemper because her dogs had been quarantined during a recent outbreak at the shelter.
Dawkins said that when her husband, Thirum, went to pick up the dogs May 8, at the end of their initial 10-day stay, “they told him no dogs could leave, no dogs could come in” because of the distemper problem. But, she said, they told him not to worry because “your dogs are fine.”
The new release date would be May 15. The Dawkinses would not have to pay for the extended stay.
This Wednesday — eight days after the dogs’ rescheduled release — Dawkins took Saint to a local veterinary office to be euthanized, only to discover when she opened the rear door of her gold Honda that the dog had died on the way.
Sinner, she said, was at home, “fighting for his life” despite doses of penicillin, hand feeding and “everything I could possibly do to keep him alive.” But by Thursday, he, too, was on the way to the vet’s to be euthanized, she said.
Dawkins took Saint’s remains to the Griffin Laboratory in Monroe, a N.C. Department of Agriculture facility where doctors will determine what killed the dog.
Although Dawkins maintains — and the vet suspects — canine distemper, symtoms of the disease are not exclusive to distemper, and only a necropsy can determine an exact cause of death.
The vet — who asked not to be named — noted on the form requesting a necropsy that Saint was not up to date on his shots. Dawkins said her dogs had been inoculated against distemper as puppies but had not received boosters.
“Was quarantined at Richmond Co. Animal Control for attacking/killing another dog,” the request continued. “Richmond Co. at that time quarantined their facility because of a suspect(ed) Canine Distemper outbreak.”
Necropsy results will not be available for two weeks, Dawkins said.
SHE SAID/THEY SAID
Dawkins said the shelter never notified her that her dogs were ill. When she asked why they had not received shots against distemper despite the shelter’s closing, she said, she was told the dogs were going to be euthanized, so it was unnecessary.
Yet Dawkins has copies of documents she received after her dogs’ stay at the shelter that seem contradictory to both one another and to what she thinks occurred.
One shows that Saint received Bordetella and DAPP vaccines, as well as deworming medicine, upon “intake” at 11:54 a.m. May 15 — although the dogs entered the shelter on April 27 and left the day after the supposed intake date.
The same form says Saint had no “bite history” and was not considered dangerous, despite his being quarantined after killing two other dogs.
Bordetella bronchiseptica, or “kennel cough,” causes inflammation of a dog’s upper respiratory system, leading to coughing and increased susceptibility to secondary infections. “DAPP” stands for “distemper,” “adenovirus,” “parainfluenza” and “parvovirus,” and is otherwise known as “the puppy vaccine.”
A hand-written “receipt” that Dawkins requested from the sheriff’s officers who ordered her dogs quarantined — “Officer Watts” and “Officer Beach” — details what day the dogs entered the shelter (April 27) and how much their stay would cost ($10 per day each for boarding, and $7 each for rabies shots — for a total of $214.) Dawkins also has a receipt for the $214, which she paid the day she picked up the dogs.
Another printout, which Dawkins made from the shelter’s website, shows that Saint was on its list of potential adoptees. Dawkins thought that was unlikely if the dogs were due to be put down.
But the state’s Animal Welfare Act dictates that “before an animal may be euthanized or otherwise disposed of, it shall be made available for adoption” unless it is sick or otherwise defective, or involved in a pending criminal case.
The act also states that “any person licensed or registered” by the state to care for animals can be fined if evidence shows he or she failed to do so “adequately.” It does not spell out what is adequate, mentioning only housing, feeding and watering animals.
Even though it can spread quickly and cause great harm or even death, the law does not dictate that state inspectors look for outbreaks of distemper or that shelters tell anyone when it occurs.
“There is no mandate for us to investigate distemper,” a state Agriculture and Consumer Services spokeswoman said.
“Distemper is not a reportable disease,” she said Thursday. “It is a disease that occurs a lot in the community, so it does show up in the shelters.
“There is no investigation if an animal shows up at the shelter and then breaks with distemper.”
It also does not dictate specific care for a dog that falls ill at a shelter, saying only that the responsibility for shelter animals’ health is under county jurisdiction.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
Despite the “WE ARE OPEN” sign perched on the berm of U.S. 74 Business West, Richmond County’s animal shelter is closed again, a sign on the door saying that “Due to Distemper we have Voluntarily Closed until we are confident we are clear.”
“We want every ones furbabies to be safe,” the sign continues, in smaller red print. “Please make sure your babies are vaccinated. It takes more than just 1 shot for them to be protected.”
County Manager Bryan Land reiterated that advice Thursday morning.
“It must be stressed that everyone in the community needs to have their animals vaccinated annually,” he said in an email.
He said the shelter would be closed again as the result of distemper — this time until June 12 — on the advice of “our vet of record and state inspector.”
“I would like to reiterate that this was brought into the shelter,” Land said. “It did not start at our facility.”
As of Thursday morning, he said, “We have no signs of distemper; however, we have had some cases of canine distemper, and all appropriate actions are being taken.
“We are making sure all protocol is being followed by disinfecting the entire building, discarding all items that potential(ly) infected animals came in contact with, as well as disinfecting the yard.
“We are revaccinating all animals that are due and making sure all animals are vaccinated that require vaccinations.”
Richmond County isn’t the only area with distemper difficulties, Land said: “There is a serious distemper problem in our state.”
“Distemper problems” tend to occur during hot, muggy months, when animals are outside and exposed to other animals that may sneeze or cough on them, transmitting the distemper virus through the air. Wild animals such as raccoons carry the virus and can transfer it to domesticated animals.
A dog that develops canine distemper shows signs of the disease almost immediately: sneezing, coughing, and mucus running from the eyes and nose. Fever, lethargy, sudden vomiting or diarrhea, depression and/or loss of appetite also are symptoms.
Even dogs that recover from a case of distemper may experience lifelong issues such as seizures or other nervous-system disorders.
In a May 6 statement worded in almost the same manner as the one Thursday, Land said that during the past distemper difficulty, 12 dogs had been euthanized after testing positive for distemper, and several remained in quarantine.
“All is good” at the shelter, he said then.
Land said then that the shelter closed voluntarily on May 3 and planned to reopen May 15 — the day Dawkins’s dogs had their “intake” exams, despite having entered the shelter on April 27.
Land said he knew “very little” about Dawkins’s put bulls, other than that they sounded vicious because they killed two other dogs.
“Additionally,” he said, “it sounds like neither was up to date on their shots.”
The Anson County Animal Shelter also reopened recently after a distemper outbreak that forced the euthanization of 17 animals.
Working with the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, the shelter was able to save 37 through testing and resulting inoculations, Director Maureen Lett told the Anson Record.
“Moving forward,” Lett said, “the Anson County shelter will be vaccinating all dogs against distemper the day they enter the shelter.”
The only vaccine North Carolina requires be given to pets is rabies, although several others are recommended — distemper among them — especially if a dog or cat will not spend all of its time indoors.
Veterinarians recommend that dogs receive regularly scheduled vaccines against canine distemper, canine hepatitis, canine parvovirus, parainfluenza and Bordetella. Some vaccines, such as versions of DAPP, guard against several diseases at once.
Whether Dawkins has any call for redress, she may have signed away her rights to remuneration the day she picked up her animals.
Then, she signed a form declaring that her “dog/cat is accepted (into the shelter) with any apparent or latent health problems, faults, blemishes or imperfections, and I hereby exonerate the Richmond County Animal Shelter from any responsibility with respect to the dog/cat.”
Dawkins said Thursday that she never would have signed the form had she seen her dogs first.
She also wondered why she could not have quarantined her dogs at home, something state law allows if quarantined dogs are otherwise healthy and their owners swear they won’t be kept near people or animals outside the owner’s family.
But no one told her she had that option until Saint was already near death.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]