Sick As a Dog 

Latest distemper outbreak at animal shelter points to need for new building.

The new Memphis animal shelter

The new Memphis animal shelter

Shortly after Rena Loyd adopted her terrier mix, Daisy, from Memphis Animal Services in late January, she noticed the dog was showing signs of illness.

"She was not eating or drinking," said the senior administrative assistant at Smith & Nephew. "I literally had to take a syringe to squirt water into her mouth because she was lethargic."

A week after the adoption, Daisy died of distemper, an airborne, highly contagious viral disease. On March 27th, almost two months after Daisy's death, a distemper outbreak in the animals shelter's adoption area resulted in the euthanization of more than 100 dogs over a four-day period. (According to animal shelter director Matthew Pepper, a few of those dogs may have been euthanized for reasons other than distemper.)  

Sickness spreads quickly at the animal shelter at 3456 Tchulahoma since animals are held in close proximity to one another. But a new city animal shelter designed to prevent the spread of disease is set to open in late summer.

More than twice as large as its predecessor, the new shelter at 2350 Appling City Cove will feature 30 central heating and air conditioning units, a quarantine area for sick animals, and a surgery suite. The current shelter only has one ventilation system.

Mel Scheuerman, the city's administrator of design and construction, said the current shelter's setup increases the spread of disease: "When you've got animals in close contact and you don't have the space to isolate new animals that come in, you raise the opportunity for contamination."

Although the current shelter's design may have contributed to the March distemper outbreak, Memphis Animal Shelter advisory board member Cindy Sanders said steps could have been taken to lessen its impact.

"A distemper [outbreak] of this magnitude doesn't happen overnight," Sanders said. "The euthanization shouldn't have been a knee-jerk reaction. There are measures that could have been taken. Cleaning methods and housing methods could've been put into place at the first sign of the distemper. But it seems they buried their head in the sand and waited until it was a full outbreak."  

Animal advocates like Sanders have been waiting a long time for the new shelter to open. The project has been in the works for more than five years.

Scheuerman said the shelter's construction delay has been due to lack of funding. The project, initially proposed in 2005, needed $10 million to be completed but was only provided $5 million initially.

Once complete, the shelter will offer education and training classes to teach citizens how to be responsible pet owners.  

"The prominent issue for us is to help the community become aware of responsible pet ownership. We wouldn't need animal shelters if they [were responsible]," Pepper said. "Letting your animal outside to roam is not good for the community."

What will happen to the current shelter, which is owned by the Memphis Airport Authority, has yet to be determined.

Pepper said the new shelter is not a cure-all for Memphis Animal Services' problems. Shelter employees will still be responsible for providing good care and customer service.

"The building [itself] is not going to greet people when they walk in," Pepper said. "It's not going to care for the animals or educate the community on correct pet ownership. That's our job."

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