1,200 dogs in Kansas kennel euthanized in distemper outbreak

A commercial dog breeder in Kansas last week euthanized 1,200 dogs after customers at a Wyoming pet store purchased puppies infected with distemper, a highly-contagious viral disease.

The mass euthanasia came after state authorities twice ordered the kennel be placed under quarantine since mid-October but tests indicated the disease was still present. The kennel owner, Jeff Fortin, said he had to destroy the dogs because he could not sell them and could no longer afford to pay his staff and feed the animals.

So how did an outbreak occur in a kennel inspected by both the Kansas Department of Animal Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both of which require "a program of veterinary care?"

Experts say there's one reason:

"The dogs weren't vaccinated," said Karen Overall, a veterinarian research professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. "There's no reason to have an outbreak of anything as a breeder if the dogs are vaccinated, not stressed and have good food and water."

Wyoming state authorities confirmed 24 cases of distemper in puppies sold in pet stores that came from Fortin's kennel, the largest outbreak the state veterinarian said he'd ever seen, according to news reports.

Distemper has nothing to do with a dog's temperament. It is a viral disease that strikes the respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems. It is not curable but is treatable and proper isolation can protect unaffected dogs.

Could such a mass outbreak happen in Pennsylvania? Yes, though likely not on such a large scale.

First, Pennsylvania does not have kennels this large - although it's legal to house that many dogs in a kennel in this state.

The state's 100 or so biggest commercial kennels (the largest right now house between 400 and 500 dogs) are now, under the 2008 dog law, required to provide twice annual veterinary exams for breeding dogs. But the law does not cover the roughly 2,000 smaller licensed kennels, which are inspected twice annually but have no such veterinary requirement.

Pennsylvania has not seen a major outbreak of contagious disease at breeding kennels - at least that has been reported - but there have been disease outbreaks in shelters like the Pennsylvania SPCA in Philadelphia. Overall says dogs (and cats) in a shelter environment are more susceptible to disease because of the constant traffic of new animals who may not be vaccinated and the high stress levels.

There is no shortage of evidence, however, that Pennsylvania puppies have been sold, both in pet stores and through classified ads, with contagious diseases and questions have been raised about veterinarians who provided their care.

In one high-profile case, Joyce Stoltzfus of the now defunct kennel, CC Pets in Peach Bottom, Lancaster County, and her veterinarian, Tom Stevenson of Honey Brook, Chester County (who was later convicted on animal cruelty in a separate case), were sued by a New Jersey couple who bought a puppy that died of parvo virus - a preventable disease. Stoltzfus and Stevenson settled the case for an undisclosed amount.

The Kansas kennel owner had a long history of violations to the federal Animal Welfare Act including failure to provide adequate veterinary care.  Inspections reveal dogs were not treated for a variety of injuries and illnesses, including open wounds. Inspection reports indicate one dog was found with a prolapsed uterus and a poodle was so "wobbly it had to be assisted to stand." 

Fortin's Beaver Creek kennel in Cedar Bluffs was fined $8,700 by the USDA in 2006 for "facility violations" and warned in May about ongoing problems.

In June 2010 USDA inspectors reported filthy conditions, housing in disrepair, failure to provide proper shelter from the elements and rodent infestation. Violations documented by the state animal health department include filthy water receptacles, “excessive saturation of feces,” and urine ammonia fumes that the inspector said “burned my eyes,” according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Fortin also owned several pet stores in Colorado. He was charged with animal cruelty there in 2008 after dozens of puppies were found crammed in small crates.

The Kansas kennel is closed for now but state officials were reported as saying he could reopen in six months "under stringent guidelines."