Nearly 100 dogs dead or sick as distemper runs rampant in Manitoba community

An outbreak of canine distemper is killing dogs on a northern Manitoba First Nation and has the potential to spread to other communities.

If it does, it could “wipe out thousands” as well as infect wildlife, says the founder of a dog rescue group.

“Unfortunately, the virus has gone rampant through Moose Lake and has killed dozens and dozens of dogs. We’ve got over a reported 40 deaths from the community in the last three weeks and probably another 50 or so are sick,” said Katie Powell of the Winnipeg-based Save A Dog Network Canada.

The dead include family pets as well as strays running loose in the community, about 75 kilometres southeast of The Pas, she said.

Powell’s organization along with another rescue group, Feed The Furbabies Canada, have arranged for an emergency vet team to visit Moose Lake on the weekend of Oct. 19-20.

The goal is to vaccinate dogs that can still be saved and euthanize those that cannot, she said.

“And body recovery is a big part of this — getting the virus out of the community. Any dogs that we do find that have passed away we will be gathering.”

Canine distemper is an extremely contagious airborne virus that affects the respiratory, digestive and nervous systems of animals.

“The dog can appear sick, looking a little bit lazy with vomiting, diarrhea. In the more severe stages, as the virus takes over the body, there’s lots of mucous coming from the nose, eyes,” Powell said.

“And near death, they start to seize, they do lip smacking, convulsions and are unable to walk. The animal suffers and it’s very visually traumatizing for families witnessing this.”

While there have been many documented cases of distemper in Manitoba, neither she nor any other rescue group she works with has ever seen an outbreak this severe in a single community.

Powell blames it on a lack of affordable veterinary care and vaccinations available to people in remote areas. The vaccination rate is less than five per cent in those communities, compared to 70 per cent in places like Winnipeg.

“Manitoba is really, really struggling with an overpopulation of dogs and a lack of veterinary care to these First Nations communities and this is exactly what happens,” she said.

Every dog in Moose Lake and nearby areas are affected by the distemper outbreak if they have not been vaccinated, Powell said.

“It absolutely has the potential to wipe out thousands of dogs” if it continues to spread, she said.

It can also be picked up by wildlife — coyotes, foxes, wolves, ferrets, skunks, raccoons — so it is not limited to dogs.

‘Make this happen’

The emergency vet trip has been planned with help from Manitoba’s Chief Veterinary Office, the conservation department of the provincial government, Moose Lake Chief and Council, Moose Lake RCMP,  and many volunteers.

Two veterinarians are also involved, one from Winnipeg and one from Virden.

“It is a large collaborative group because the provincial vet does not deal with strays,” Powell said. “So the dogs that are not owned, they will be left behind if our group doesn’t step up.”

She doesn’t not blame the provincial vet, noting they are limited in resources and by their policies.

“But as a collaborative with all of us, we can make this happen,” she said.

The rescue groups are working out logistics and raising funds to cover costs for the medications and vaccinations as well as the hotels, gas and accommodations for volunteers.

Powell’s organization routinely flies in to First Nations communities with supplies to perform a free spaying and neutering.

One thing that goes a long way in helping control the dog populations on reserves is building long-term, positive relationships with chiefs and band councils so they are open to groups like Powell’s coming in an holding vet clinics.

Part of the emergency visit on Oct. 19-20 will be to provide education to officials and residents on animal care.

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