As distemper spreads among Kern County's dogs, officials push vaccination

·3 min read

Jan. 23—Alongside the coronavirus pandemic, a similar outbreak has occurred among Kern County's dog population.

Distemper — a highly contagious and often fatal virus — has surged both locally and across California since the shutdowns caused by COVID-19 mitigation measures began. Kern County is generally known as a place where distemper is prevalent, but some local experts say this outbreak is the worst it has been in several years.

"We did have an outbreak here about three or four years ago, but honestly it was nothing compared to the scale of what we're seeing now," said Dawn Romero, rescue coordinator for Unity K9 Express Rescue and Outreach. "I have never wanted to quit rescue so much as I have in the last six months and I'm pretty tough."

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, distemper attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs. It can mimic other respiratory infections, but when the disease infects the brain, dogs often have to be put down.

It can be devastating for local pet owners who can do little once a dog contracts the virus.

Linda Jones adopted a brown and black spotted Lab mix from Kern County Animal Services in October as a companion for her Scottish terrier, Daisy. She named the adopted dog Buddy, and initially both animals got along well.

But three days after adoption, Buddy started showing symptoms of distemper, which Jones believes he contracted while in the shelter. The dog was lethargic and had a fever. Eventually, Buddy stopped eating all but a few bites. When Jones contacted Animal Services, she said they informed her Buddy needed to be euthanized.

"I'm still very upset about it. He was a very exceptional dog," Jones said. "I've had two like that in my lifetime, but he was very exceptional, very sweet, very loving, playful, kind, smart."

Daisy was put at risk of contracting the disease, but she was protected because she was vaccinated against distemper.

Jones blames the shelter for not taking more precautions against adopting out a dog that was positive for the virus. But shelters have struggled to manage outbreaks amid a surge of animals being directed through their doors.

Distemper sometimes takes five weeks to develop symptoms. And although both the county and city shelters vaccinate and isolate incoming dogs, the disease can go undetected before a dog is allowed to integrate with others.

"We're exhausted, to put it frankly. It really takes a toll on us," said Nicole Gitzke, community engagement coordinator at the Bakersfield Animal Care Center. "Our goal, and any goal at any of these shelters, is to make sure that these dogs get a second chance, and if they are getting a disease, they are not getting a second chance."

The city's shelter has stopped taking in new animals and reached out to a distemper expert as it tries to get a handle on the outbreak.

Communitywide, the shelters and animal advocates have pushed for vaccination as a key tool to bring down the distemper outbreak. After the initial vaccine schedule, dogs must receive a shot per year to remain protected against distemper.

The county is holding a free vaccine clinic from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at its 3951 Fruitvale Ave. location.

Unity K9 Express also held a vaccine clinic on Saturday.

"We, again, are doing everything we can to get vaccinations out into the community," said Kern County Animal Services Director Nick Cullen. "It is a major, major concern and we're trying to do everything we can to offer prophylactics for the community pets, because that's the only solution."

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.