It's not a pretty death.
Distemper first attacks a dog's respiratory system - causing a cough, runny eyes, runny nose and fever. That's just before the dog stops eating. Then the pneumonia sets in.
"If they survive that phase of the disease then it can attack the nervous system and the brain," said Gary Wilkes, the supervising veterinarian for Richmond County's animal shelter. "The dogs usually don't survive that."
And there's no cure for the airborne disease, which has kept the shelter closed since July 24.
After another diagnosis of distemper in a dog earlier this week, the shelter will be closed at least until Aug. 29: a day after the end of Animal Control Director Jim Larmer's tenure, and the beginning of Bonnie Bragdon's stint at the helm.
"It's endemic out there," Dr. Wilkes said. "The dogs that are well when they go in out there - they are probably going to catch distemper there. That's just the simple truth."
As of late Thursday, there were 69 dogs in Richmond County's kennels, according to Rosemary Reynolds, the center's assistant director. The facility is not accepting new animals until the quarantine ends - and the quarantine gets extended two weeks every time a new case of distemper shows up.
The two weeks cover the incubation period of the disease, Dr. Wilkes said. If no new cases show up, the center should be cleared to begin accepting strays again. In fact, during a check earlier this week, a state inspector said the facility looked great.
"Everything looked real good to us," Dr. Wilkes said.
Calls to the State Department of Agriculture were not returned Thursday.
So what is the problem? Think of the shelter as a sick building - decades old and filled with cracks and crevices of disease and filth. It's nearly impossible to clean, even though animal control workers are using a stronger disinfectant - one of the factors state inspectors pointed to at the start of the quarantine. There's also new ventilation fans and a place for employes to wash their shoes before entering and exiting the pound, Dr. Wilkes said.
"Unless they bomb the place, it's not going to clear everything up," he said, adding he started practicing in Augusta in 1972 - and he's seen distemper cases coming out of the pound ever since. "But (the changes) will go a long way toward helping."
But it is not doing much for other animal shelters in the interim. Columbia County's had 56 dogs during the afternoon headcount Wednesday. With nowhere else to go, Richmond County residents are bringing dogs to Columbia County. The number swelled to more than 80 dogs in the shelter last week.
Officials have adopted out 29 animals so far this week, but they are still planning on having an all-day adoption fair Saturday at the shelter off Columbia Road, said Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker. Two days of adoption last weekend cleared more than 40 animals from the shelter.
Adopting a cat or dog costs about $100 - including the adoption fee, shots and the mandatory spay or neutering charge, which is offered at a discount rate by various local clinics.
Meanwhile, Dr. Wilkes is keeping an eye on the Richmond County pound, hoping to ensure the distemper stops attacking the dogs held during the quarantine. However, if a dog does come down with it, there are few options.
"I'll recommend he's put down," Dr. Wilkes said. "For an animal control facility, that's the most realistic way."
So it's a game of wait-and-see: Wait another two weeks and see if another case shows up. If so, it's two more weeks of quarantine.
"It's drawing it out, but that's what's best for the situation overall," Dr. Wilkes said.
Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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