All adoptable felines residing at the Humane Society of Indianapolis were euthanized starting Oct. 3, prompted by an outbreak of panleukopenia, known as feline distemper, among the kittens. Over 100 cats in all were, as the HSI described, "depopulated." "We did not issue a press release to that fact, yet we are not denying the fact or shying away from the truth," David DeBruzzi, the HSI's director of community outreach, told NUVO via e-mail. "Our fears were that by sending a press release on depopulation we would scare the public away from both surrendering and adopting cats from any shelter."
An advisory statement regarding the suspension of accepting cats less than one year old was issued Sept. 30 to some media outlets - not including NUVO - and animal welfare agencies, stating they were experiencing "greater than expected" cases of panleukopenia. (The HSI resumed acceptance of cats on Oct. 18.)
The panleukopenia virus, transmitted through feces and vomit, attacks the intestinal tract. Symptoms include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and/or fever. It spreads rapidly among kittens; some never show signs. Many adult cats are immune because of previous exposure or vaccinations.
On Oct. 10, an adult cat with a known upper respiratory infection died. The 4-year-old stray had been sterilized and received vaccinations at HSI before going on the adoption floor. A necropsy revealed its health was further compromised by panleukopenia.
Because of this, on Oct. 11, "The decision was made and followed through with pretty quickly," DeBruzzi said of HSI euthanizing the remaining adults indiscriminate of being owner-surrenders or exhibiting symptoms. "As far as showing symptoms, some of them very well could have been."
DeBruzzi explained, "Vaccines are not 100 percent effective ... cats come into a place like this and they get stressed out, their immune system is down already." About half of the adults were strays with unknown health histories. "We're open acceptance, which means we take cats and kittens in any kind of condition. There are far too many cats in the city and in the country that are not spayed or neutered, so we get the end result of that here," he said. An infected animal could at any time bring panleukopenia, or other infectious diseases, back into the shelter.
"Is it fair to euthanize an animal that's showing no symptoms?" DeBruzzi continued. "Is it fair to put that cat out there ... What's going to happen? Is it going to drop dead on a new family? Is it going to go home to a family that already has cats and infect that household? I mean, that's really the fairness issue."
Cats at HSI affected by the facility outbreak were not removed and/or placed into foster care. DeBruzzi said 120 to 360 HSI cats were already in place with 40 to 50 foster volunteers before the outbreak.
Cats relinquished to HSI receive a health screening. Improved hygiene/quarantine measures have been implemented.
"We went through some drastic measures to try to contain this ... Especially in a building like this that's out of space and doesn't have the greatest facilities to begin with," he said.
If euthanizing all cats was the best solution, why not go public?
DeBruzzi answered, "Martha [Boden, HSI executive director] and myself have called rescue groups and told them what's going on. We have also obviously conferred with Animal Control [Indianapolis Animal Care and Control], Hamilton County ... you don't want to sound alarms."
DeBruzzi said state agencies, a vaccine vendor and veterinarians were additionally consulted. "It would probably take a year," he said to weed out the virus had they not euthanized, adding that they didn't have the staff resources to test every cat for panleukopenia.
An HSI information sheet states, "It is not possible to eliminate panleukopenia in the Humane Society, because panleukopenia is present in the community around us."
DeBruzzi reported that comparable outbreaks recently occurred in four other cities, including Chicago.
No outbreak at other shelters
Kirsten Vant Woud, kennel manager at Indianapolis Animal Care and Control, said of panleukopenia, "If it were a problem in Indianapolis, I would think we would be seeing it." IACC holds 500 animals at a time, cares for 20,000 annually and is satisfied with the Eclipse FVRCP vaccine they administer.
"Our kennel staff learned about this through word of mouth and splotchy news coverage," she said of the HSI situation. "They did not contact my office or inform us of what was happening," regarding the HSI decision to mass-euthanize, Vant Woud said. "They did call to let us know that they were suspending receipt of cats ... we were prepared for the influx. So, theoretically we got all the cats that they had been getting and yet we're not seeing the disease."
Vant Woud said of HSI not being forthright, "They have a duty ... There is enough misinformation out there that people are going to be startled."
Southside Animal Shelter also reported zero incidences.
Leslie Fatum, IACC administrator and a veterinarian, said, "Someone had called us about this thing with distemper... And we were like, what? I said I didn't know of anybody that put 100 animals down. I just put it down to some crazy urban legend or rumor."
If the IACC encountered an outbreak, Fatum surmised, "I would work very, very hard before we would make a decision like that. I think it's sort of unfathomable. I would try everything I could think of before that. I feel badly for them and feel badly for those cats, too."