Last December/January, 2 Washington dog rescues euthanized 18 dogs (17 puppies and 1 adult dog) transported to Washington from California because they had distemper.
Terri Myers from CruzinPawz Rescue Transport picked up some of the dogs on November 30 for Main Street Mutt Rescue (MSMR)* in Bellingham from Rescue Oasis in Palmdale, CA.**
Rescue Oasis was a privately run kennel where dogs pulled from high-kill animal shelters stayed before going to rescues. A woman named Kathy Schroeder ran it.
Ms. Schroeder and MSMR both knew at least some of the dogs put on the transport had been exposed to distemper at Rescue Oasis.
After leaving Palmdale, the transport picked up 31 dogs and puppies in Modesto, CA for Save-a-Mutt Rescue in Stanwood, WA. Some of them rode in the van with the exposed dogs.
No one ever told Save-a-Mutt founder Jennifer Ward that its dogs rode in a van with dogs exposed to distemper; she only found out a month later when some of her puppies from that transport began to die.
Over the next few weeks, Save-a-Mutt euthanized 1 adult dog and 9 puppies infected with distemper. MSMR euthanized 8 puppies.
This post will examine the chain of events that led to the deaths of the dogs/puppies and what could have done to prevent it.
Canine Distemper: Highly Contagious, No Cure
Canine distemper is “a…..serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of puppies and dogs.”
It spreads through airborne exposure, direct contact with an infected animal, or indirect contact (exposure to bowls, blankets, etc. used by an infected animal).
Unlike parvo, which can survive in the environment for up to a year, distemper only survives a few hours at room temperature.
Canine distemper has an incubation period of 1-2 weeks but it can be as long as 4-5 weeks before an infected dog shows symptoms of the disease.
A dog can carry the virus for weeks without showing any symptoms and still infect other dogs.
Puppies are particularly susceptible because their immune systems aren’t fully developed.
Symptoms of distemper include:
- watery discharge from the nose and eyes
- lack of appetite
The virus attacks the nervous system as it progresses. This causes circling behavior, head tilting, seizures, muscle twitching, paralysis, and thickening of foot pads.
The virus is especially nasty because it’s extremely contagious, often fatal, and does not have a cure.
Once a dog is either exposed to or has distemper, it must be isolated to prevent the virus from spreading.
After recovering from distemper a dog can still shed the virus for up to 120 days.
The American Veterinary Medical Association says treatment usually consists of “supportive care and efforts to prevent secondary infections; control vomiting, diarrhea and neurologic symptoms; and combat dehydration through administration of fluids.”
Dogs Pulled from California Shelters Brought Distemper to Rescue Oasis
Last fall, two dogs infected with the distemper virus arrived at Rescue Oasis from California municipal shelters.
A scruffy little yellowish dog named Benji arrived at Rescue Oasis in early November. He came from from Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control in Lancaster.
Happy Tails Dog Rescue in Oak Harbor, WA originally scheduled him for transport on November 9; however, Happy Tails pulled him from the transport because he showed signs of illness.
On November 13, Rescue Oasis posted a picture of Benji with 2 other dogs on its Facebook page. It said the dogs were in isolation for kennel cough.
Benji left Rescue Oasis on November 17 for transport to Happy Tails Dog Rescue. He went to an emergency vet on November 22.
The vet tested Benji and found he had distemper. Happy Tails founder Kim Welsh then relayed Benji’s diagnosis to Ms. Schroeder at Rescue Oasis.
A black, long-haired terrier mix named Simon arrived at Rescue Oasis around October 23. He came from the Kern County Animal Services in Bakersfield, CA.
Simon was scheduled to go to Animal Defense Rescue in Eastsound on Orcas Island in late November. But on November 23 a representative from the rescue contacted Ms. Myers to pull Simon from the transport because he was “too sick” it was “too risky” to put him on it.
Ms. Myers said she later learned “Simon had goopy eyes but no cough or sneezing.”
The representative contacted Ms. Myers with CruzinPawz on December 9 to again reschedule Simon’s transport.
She added that “she knew he had distemper on November 23, and that he was still being cared for at Rescue Oasis.”
Ms. Schroeder isolated Simon when began showing symptoms of what she initially thought was kennel cough. Eventually he was diagnosed with distemper and went to Ms. Schroeder’s house to recover.
He left Rescue Oasis on January 4 for Animal Defense Rescue in Oak Harbor.
Dogs Coming to Washington Exposed to Distemper Virus at Rescue Oasis
Main Street Mutt Rescue used Rescue Oasis last fall to hold some dogs it pulled from shelters before transporting them to Washington.
At the end of November the rescue had 2 females and their puppies at Rescue Oasis – Sabrina, a grey and white pit bull with 8 puppies, and Sadie Mae, a shepherd mix with 6 puppies.
The rescue contracted CruzinPawz Rescue Transport to pick these dogs up on November 30 and bring them to Bellingham.
Sabrina and Sadie Mae
Sabrina arrived at Rescue Oasis in early November.
Ms. Schroeder put Sabrina in the same kennel in an isolation room that Simon and the other 2 dogs occupied a few days earlier.
Since the distemper virus is only contagious for a few hours, she and her puppies probably weren’t exposed to it in the kennel unless someone carried it in after having direct contact with a dog exposed to distemper.
Sadie Mae arrived at Rescue Oasis in mid-November with 6 puppies. Ms. Schroeder put her in the same isolation room as Simon, the terrier mix that showed signs of sickness.
Ms. Schroeder said all the kennels in isolation had metal sheets between them to prevent diseases/viruses from spreading.
But the sheets were only about 4 feet high, and because the kennels were made of chain link fencing, I don’t believe they were adequate to prevent infected dogs from spreading the virus.
Based on this post from MSMR’s Facebook page, we know Recue Oasis kenneled Sadie Mae and her puppies next to Simon:
“On November 23rd, however, Ms. Schroeder notified MSMR that there was a possible distemper exposure from a dog who was kenneled next to the litter of puppies. We were told that there was a board between the kennels, the dog was showing no clinical signs except goopy eyes. No sneezing or coughing. We were told a vet came out, and between us, the vet and Kathy, at rescue oasis, we decided to go ahead and vaccinate the puppies early in case of exposure. We were told the vet was not concerned at all about the puppies because of lack of clinical signs from the dog kenneled next to them. Sadie Mae and Puppies got their health certs.”
This statement shows that, on November 23, Ms. Schroeder and MSMR both knew that Sadie Mae and her litter scheduled for transport to MSMR 7 days later had been exposed to distemper.
Dogs Exposed to Distemper Virus Infected Other Dogs on Transport
While enroute to Main Street Mutt Rescue, Ms. Myers stopped in Modesto, CA to meet a woman who was fostering 31 dogs and puppies going to Save-a-Mutt Rescue in Marysville, WA:
- Josie – Large Breed Mix with 10 puppies
- Sicily – Large Breed Mix with 4 puppies
- 5 Chihuahua puppies
- 4 Chihuahua mix puppies
- 6 German Shepherd puppies
During part the transport, some of the exposed dogs from Rescue Oasis rode in the same van as the dogs going to Save-a-Mutt (they left Modesto in 2 vans).
While unloading the dogs and puppies in Marysville, she noticed that Sadie Mae, the dog going to MSMR with her litter, had “green snot” coming out of her nose.
None of the other dogs appeared to be sick although Ms. Myers said one of Sadie Mae’s puppies had been sitting by itself during the trip and didn’t eat with the rest of the litter.
Main Street Mutt Rescue
After unloading the dogs and puppies in Marysville, Ms. Myers and her volunteer drove to Burlington to drop off the dogs and puppies for MSMR.
About 3 hours after the dogs arrived, MSMR texted Ms. Myers to say that she took one of the puppies to an emergency vet because he “seemed lethargic and had a mucus poop.”
The vet diagnosed the puppy with pneumonia, and they euthanized him later that night. The next day MSMR took the Mom and the rest of the litter to a vet who thought they had kennel cough or pneumonia. He gave them antibiotics and sent them home.
I don’t know if anyone from MSMR informed the veterinarian that the dogs had been exposed to distemper.
Over the next several days more puppies began to get sick. On December 8, MSMR informed Ms. Myers that the vet did a PCR culture to determine if they had distemper.
On December 13, MSMR told Ms. Myers some of the dogs tested positive for distemper and made a public announcement on its Facebook the next day.
Ultimately, MRMR euthanized 8 puppies due to distemper.
No one told Save-a-Mutt founder Jennifer Ward that some of her dogs and puppies rode with the dogs exposed to distemper, even after MSMR’s vet confirmed that some of their dogs from Rescue Oasis tested positive for distemper on December 13.
In mid-December, one of the puppies developed respiratory problems. Ms. Ward took to him to the vet on December 19 and told Ms. Myers that it may have kennel cough.
Ms. Myers did NOT tell her that some of Save-a-Mutt’s dogs rode in the same van as some of the MSMR dogs diagnosed with distemper.
On December 22, Jennifer euthanized the puppy due to seizures and neurological problems.
On Christmas day, she euthanized Sicily, the mother of one of the litters that arrived on December 1.
The next day, Jennifer contacted Ms. Myers to let her know she put down some of the dogs from Rescue Oasis due to distemper.
Only then, 2 weeks after she knew the diagnosis for MSMR’s puppies, did Ms. Myers tell Jennifer that MSMR had to put down some of their puppies due to distemper.
Ultimately, Save-a-Mutt euthanized Sicily and 9 puppies from 3 different litters.
Distemper: Difficult to Diagnose, Extremely Contagious
Distemper is a particularly insidious virus because it’s extremely contagious and usually fatal. Dogs that do survive often have permanent neurological damage.
According to DVM360.com, the virus is difficult to diagnose because initial symptoms can appear identical to “run-in-the mill kennel cough.”
The article also notes that acutely infected animals shed distemper in all body secretions.
It spreads “by direct contact, by aerosol or respiratory droplet exposure. Dogs are capable of aerosolizing droplets up to 20 feet, meaning “this disease can be considered an “air-borne” contagion.”
But although distemper is hard to diagnose and control, people can take steps to prevent it from spreading once they identify the virus.
Dog Deaths Were Preventable
What makes the deaths of these 18 dogs and puppies even more tragic is that they could have been prevented.
Ms. Schroeder posted on the Rescue Oasis Facebook page last January that “proper isolation, hygiene, and sanitation are key” to preventing outbreaks of diseases in shelters, “but they can only do so much.”
Dogs’ unknown medical histories and variable virus incubation periods make it virtually impossible for any shelter to prevent outbreaks.
Diseases can pop up in any shelter or boarding facility, even one where staff clean and disinfect every surface regularly and properly isolate all infected dogs.
If a shelter takes all the appropriate precautions, however, it can significantly reduce the chance of an outbreak or minimize the spread when an outbreak occurs.
Based on the evidence I’ve seen, Rescue Oasis didn’t have safeguards in place that could have protected the dogs coming to Washington from exposure to distemper.
Sick Dogs Not Properly Isolated
DVM360.com notes that once a shelter has a dog infected with distemper, it must “make a clean break between exposed/vulnerable dogs and new incoming ones” by isolating all sick dogs from the rest of the dogs in the shelter.
The website also says, “This (isolation) is of utmost importance as failure to do so will likely perpetuate the disease in the shelter.”
It also says, “Isolation must take into account the potential for both aerosolized (airborne) and fomite (objects/materials) spread of virus.”
All the sources I found isolating a dog infected with or exposed to distemper is the first step to take prevent the spread of the virus.
Ms. Schroeder acknowledged that Sadie Mae and her puppies were in the same “isolation room” as Simon.
She also said she put 4-foot pieces of sheet metal between the chain link kennels to prevent the virus from spreading.
But I don’t think the she properly isolated the moms and puppies.
Isolation means a sick/exposed dog goes to a separate room completely segregated from the healthy dogs.
Instead, Rescue Oasis put Sabrina her puppies next to the kennel that housed Benji and the two other dogs suspected of having kennel cough. (remember Benji eventually developed distemper after leaving Palmdale).
And when Sadie Mae arrived with her puppies, Rescue Oasis put her in the same “isolation area” as Simon, who was later diagnosed with distemper, and Sabrina and her puppies.
I believe that Simon wouldn’t have exposed Sadie Mae or any of her puppies to distemper if Rescue Oasis isolated the sick dogs in a different room and kept them completely separated from the moms and their puppies.
Exposed Dogs Transported Too Soon
The critical point of this whole saga occurred when Ms. Schroeder and MSMR decided to send the dogs exposed to distemper on the transport.
In a text to Ms. Myers, Ms. Schroeder claimed a veterinarian said it would be ok to transport the dogs because “Simon wasn’t coughing or sneezing there was probably minimal exposure especially with the sheet metal between the cages.”
This doesn’t make sense to me. Many sources say to quarantine dogs “possibly exposed” to distemper for at least a month.
DVM360.com notes, “quarantine of dogs possibly exposed to distemper should be a minimum of one month, and even then it is impossible to be sure of catching all cases.
So why did a vet sign off on transporting a mom and puppies exposed to distemper before the end of this virus’ incubation period?
I asked Ms. Schroeder if I could speak to the vet to verify what she said.
She refused to give me his name.
Eventually I found the name of the vet and left messages with his office twice but he never returned my calls.
Why the lack of transparency?
If Rescue Oasis’ decisions were based on sound medical evidence, why not make all the pertinent information public?
The bottom line is that, once people knew the Sadie Mae and her puppies had been exposed to distemper on November 23, they should have been (properly) quarantined for at least a month instead of put on the transport a week later.
Ms. Schroeder did admit that Rescue Oasis had other outbreaks of distemper but she didn’t supply specific information.
Poor Communication = Dog Deaths
CruzinPawz Rescue Transport and MSMR made a huge mistake that likely resulted in the deaths of at least some of the dogs going to Save-a-Mutt in Marysville.
For almost a month, neither of them told Jennifer Ward at Save-a-Mutt that some of her dogs and puppies on the transport rode in the same van as dogs exposed to distemper.
Even when Jennifer told Ms. Myers that some of her puppies appeared to have kennel cough, Ms. Myers didn’t tell her MSMR euthanized some of its puppies from from the transport due to distemper.
Jennifer didn’t find out that some MSMR’s dogs on the transport developed distemper until December 26 when she contacted Ms. Myers 26 to say some of her dogs from the transport tested positive for distemper.
Only then did Ms. Myers tell her some of Save-a-Mutt’s dogs rode in the same transport as the MSMR dogs exposed to distemper.
This lack of communication didn’t just impact Jennifer and the dogs at Save-a-Mutt; it traumatized 2 families who adopted 3 infected puppies at a Save-a-Mutt adoption event on December 16.
All 3 died soon after the families adopted them.
A phone call from Ms. Myers or MSMR to Jennifer could have prevented the devastation experienced by 2 families that watched their puppies die.
It would have also prompted Jennifer to test the dogs for distemper at least 2 weeks sooner to see which ones to isolate.
Transport and Rescue Accept Responsibility, Make Changes
Both Ms. Myers and Main Street Mutt Rescue publicly apologized and accepted responsibility for their part in this tragedy.
Ms. Myers wrote the following on the CruzinPawz Rescue Transport Facebook page last January:
“Because of my lack of communication and knowledge of Distemper and this being my first time experiencing it (not an excuse) I have failed everyone. I take full responsibility for not communicating.“
Ms. Schroeder claimed she told Ms. Myers about the distemper exposure before they loaded the dogs on the transport and blamed her for deciding to load the dogs. Ms. Myers says no one told her the dogs had been exposed.
I couldn’t find evidence to support either claim.
Ms. Myers made procedural changes in response to the Rescues Oasis fiasco. For every transport, she now:
- Emails a summary of what happened during the trip to all rescues with dogs the transport.
- Provides updates regarding the dogs’ health (if needed) for up to 4 weeks after a transport.
- No longer transports dogs from Rescue Oasis.
Ms. Myers provided me with a lot of information regarding this tragedy. I appreciate her honesty regardless of the potential financial consequences to her business.
MSMR also took responsibility for its part of the decision to put the exposed dogs on the transport. In a Facebook post from January, it said:
“We would have NEVER put those puppies on (the) transport had we known (that they were infected). We take total fault on our wrongness of this and we should (have) held the puppies back.”
MSMR also said it will no longer adopt out dogs “until they have been out of the shelter for at least 10 days.”
I’d prefer they hold a dog for at least 2 weeks before they’re available for adoption but this is a good step forward.
Neither MSMR or CruzinPawz appeared to understand how contagious and deadly the distemper virus is until they experienced it firsthand.
No one should start a rescue or transport for dogs unless they fully educate themselves regarding the various diseases and viruses that can threaten the dogs in their care; they also should have procedures in place to minimize the possibility of exposing any of the dogs in their care to them.
Rescue Oasis Says It Did Nothing Wrong
Rescue Oasis is not in any way responsible for either Sadie Mae or Benji contracting distemper – both dogs contracted it before arriving in Palmdale.
But the dogs going to MSMR probably would not have been exposed to distemper if Rescue Oasis hadn’t put them in the same room next to Simon.
And the dogs going to Save-a-Mutt wouldn’t have been infected if the dogs exposed to distemper hadn’t been loaded on the transport.
Throughout our conversations, Ms. Schroeder accepted no responsibility for putting healthy dogs next to infected dogs or loading the exposed dogs on the transport.
While no shelter or rescue is immune to the distemper virus; their response is completely within their control.
Ms. Myers and MSMR responded by admitting their mistakes and making changes to provide more protection to the dogs in their care.
Conversely, Ms. Schroeder made excuses, blamed others, and threatened lawsuits.
Not long after that, she said she closed Rescue Oasis.
Their website and Facebook pages disappeared, and I don’t see them anywhere on social media.
Some people have said she’s still operating Rescue Oasis but I haven’t seen any definitive proof.
If she is still running Rescue Oasis I hope she put procedures in place to do a better job of preventing the spread of viruses and diseases at the facility.
Thank you Save-a-Mutt
In closing, I want to thank Jennifer at Save-a-Mutt.
I only found out about the euthanized dogs because she posted about it on Facebook.
Without her work behind the scenes, no one would have known about the about the distemper exposure at Rescue Oasis and how many dogs and puppies it eventually killed.
And this story will educate dog owners about the dangers of distemper and (hopefully) give shelters and rescues the incentive to ensure they have proper procedures in place to prevent/mitigate distemper contaminations at their facilities.
* Main Street Mutt Rescue refused to provide any information to me for this post “(d)ue to the ways you’ve misinformed people about us in the past.” I assume they meant this post.
I found all the information about MSMR from public posts on their Facebook page and screenshots of texts people sent me.
** Ms. Schroeder and I began corresponding shortly after I began writing this piece. After about a month she said her attorney told her to stop communicating with me. After that, I got information from texts people provided and public postings on her Facebook page.
She also said she withheld information from me that would contradict what I wrote and make me look “very foolish.”
Everything I wrote is my opinion based on the knowledge I had. If anyone provides verifiable proof that something I wrote is wrong I will correct it.