Disease Hits County Shelter’s Cats


An outbreak of feline distemper has prompted Orange County’s largest animal shelter to impose a moratorium on adoptions of most of its cats.

The infectious disease--which spreads readily from cat to cat but is not a threat to humans or other domestic animals--can be fatal unless treated aggressively.

Orange County Animal Shelter officials acknowledged that at least 25 cats died of the disease after being adopted from the county-run facility in Orange--in some cases, infecting healthy cats in their foster homes.


Hoping to combat the outbreak, adoptions of cats 5 years old or younger were halted for at least 30 days while officials at the county-run shelter in Orange determine a further course of action.

The moratorium appears to be an isolated one. Officials at shelters elsewhere in the county and half a dozen run by the city of Los Angeles say the disease has not turned up among their cats, nor are they ceasing adoptions.

Dr. Richard Evans, Orange County’s top veterinarian, on Tuesday recommended vaccinations for pan leukopenia, cat distemper, for all cats and that owners keep them indoors until immunization is effective.

Kittens require a series of three shots given over a period of two months to gain immunity. Annual booster shots maintain the immunity. Older cats require a single shot.

The moratorium comes a week after a recommendation to do just that--made by the Animal Control Advisory Board--was ignored by Orange County officials, said board member Robert Newman, an attorney in Santa Ana.

“We have heard about this outbreak of distemper for months” and have been unable to get county action, Newman said. “Twenty-five animals die in three months and that takes a study to figure out there is a problem: What level of analysis does that take?”


The county shelter has drawn harsh criticism from animal supporters--as well as members of its advisory panel--over its handling of the outbreak and other policies. Its system of “gang caging” cats in large pens, for instance, is widely considered out-of-date and breeds disease and fighting among the caged animals, several board members said Tuesday.

“I am not aware of another facility that has a gang cattery,” said Dr. Bill Grant, a veterinarian who chairs the county’s Animal Control Advisory Board. “You bring them in and they are not vaccinated and you stick them together. It has been discussed for more than a year and probably for years. This is nothing new.”

Evans defended the county’s decision to monitor the cases of feline distemper since mid-November, saying the initial spike in cases was within “the baseline” for pan leukopenia. He said distemper occurs at increased levels in five- or six-year cycles.

“We assumed that was the beginning of the standard yearly situation this time of year,” he said. “It spurred us to examine the situation, then it went up and then dropped precipitously a week before Christmas. I assumed it was the yearly blip.

“It wasn’t until a week later when it went up again, and we took action.”

‘There Are Cats Out There That Are Dying’

But veterinarian Grant, who offered the motion last Wednesday, said the county acted too slowly by monitoring the situation and needed to halt adoptions sooner.

“I haven’t seen an outbreak like this in over 10 years,” he said. “Waiting for the disease to run its course is just not an appropriate way to deal with an outbreak. There are cats out there that are dying.”


Grant and others recommended separating the animals and vaccinating them when they are brought to the shelter. Even then, they said, it would not be possible to save all the cats.

County veterinarian Evans said that it would be too costly to vaccinate the dozens of cats brought in daily--at about $4 an animal--and that it would be ineffective because it takes five to seven days for immunity to develop.

The disease itself has an incubation period of up to 14 days; a cat can appear generally healthy and still be infected.

“We can’t afford to hold animals for several months,” Evans said.

Board members and former chairwoman Maria Dales, an animal rights advocate, called the county’s lack of action and its silence about the shelter distemper problem irresponsible.

“Their decision not to inform the community put other cats at risk,” she said. “They had warnings three months ago, and they are reacting very slowly.”

Dales and board members described one woman who spoke to them after she adopted one cat and it infected her two cats at home and all died. Grant said the woman’s cats died despite being previously vaccinated.


“Vaccines are not 100%,” he said.

Jackie Hibbs of Tustin said she adopted two kittens from the shelter; one died and the other survived after $1,400 worth of treatment.

“It is pretty shocking not to provide a warning,” Newman said. “It is irresponsible to let someone walk out with one of these animals that has a highly contagious, largely fatal disease.”

Newman said a better course would be for the county to euthanize all its cats until the disease is no longer a problem.

“As horrible as it sounds, that is a better alternative,” he said. “It is such a hard disease to control.”

The county took in about 13,000 cats last year, returning about 300 to owners and providing new homes to 2,000; the rest were killed.