Source:         Daily Maverick (Extract)
December 21, 2021

Clanwilliam in the Western Cape is seeing an increase in dogs dying from canine distemper virus and animal welfare organisations are battling to keep up with the number of animals that need to be put to sleep or buried.

Jeanine Mitchell, a veteran volunteer with Clanwilliam Animal Welfare (CLAW), was engaging with a Clanwilliam municipal official two weeks ago, warning about what she saw as an unfolding crisis in the area. 

Distemper, the fatal “dog disease”, had previously swept through Citrusdal and Lamberts Bay, and now it had Clanwilliam in its grip, biting down hard on words like fever, diarrhoea, eventual neurological disorder and death.

Canine distemper virus (CDV) causes fatal disease in dogs around the world. 

Mitchell’s volunteer colleague, Linette van Taak, who by all accounts gets down and dirty with the dead and dying in the streets and yards of Clanwilliam, tells of sad-eyed dogs in cages and stiff bodies abandoned in the veld and on street corners. 

“The husky puppy you see in the cage we found on Friday? He was so far gone, getting crazy and biting a steel pipe (due to neurological damage). As with any animal beyond hope – and being found on a Friday (we only have a vet on Tuesdays and Thursdays) – we take them in a borrowed bakkie to one of our volunteers, a qualified veterinary nurse in a neighbouring area, who puts them to sleep.” 

Distemper means an ugly death if not treated. However, van Taak says if it’s caught and treated within two days, the virus has less chance to cause serious damage. 

She tells the story of a boisterous adult tail-wagger called Prince who she feared would be “PTS – put to sleep”. She tells of Jeslize Jonas calling from a farm two kilometres outside town, worried about her three-month-old puppy who wasn’t eating or drinking. 

The CLAWS volunteer went out and treated the puppy, and gave Jonas instructions on care going forward.

Don’t wait… vaccinate 

“Unfortunately a lot of owners waited too long to report that their dogs were ill, and unfortunately a lot of dogs had to be PTS.” 

This, despite the fact that vaccinations are free. It’s almost like Covid among the canines, except that it is the owners who are anti-vaxxers, with the animals having no say. Mitchell believes that if her attempts to engage with the municipality had been heard, they wouldn’t have reached this stage. 

A “stage” that started on 1 November, says van Taak, when CLAWS was notified that a dog was sick, presenting with yellow mucus discharge from the eyes. 

“We realized this was distemper, a highly contagious, airborne virus that hasn’t been around for about six years.”

Distemper is spread by dogs walking about in the street. In Clanwilliam’s poorer areas, like Ou Hopland and New Hopland, there are many stray dogs, and they move into town. 

“People mostly want dogs for protection,” says van Taak, “but many don’t know how to look after them, or resent having to feed them.”

Call a vet 

Van Taak is preparing to service holiday homes as we speak; it’s her only paid (and seasonal) work, after which she has to collect a consignment of pet food for the animals in CLAW’s care, before the shops close for the holidays. 

She says that although this has been a public health crisis, the area’s veterinary needs are serviced by a private Vredendal vet, Dr Nico Degenaar, who sees “patients” for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

CLAW uses Dr Annelize Roos for its community sterilisation drive projects. Roos has been working as a vet since 1984, and since 2009 in dog population management under the banner of EnviroVet CVC (community veterinary clinic). Like Degenaar, she charges “welfare prices”.

Speaking from Calvinia at 9pm after the first day of a three-day sterilisation drive that saw her team sterilise over 100 dogs, she says only 8% of animal owners in this country can afford to go to a private vet. 

“Ninety percent go to welfare organisations, and that 90% covers 27% of the surface population of SA. The other animals have no access to health care.”

Roos says outbreaks of virus are regular occurrences in poor areas, “especially after drought, when animals have weakened immune systems”. She says it’s especially true after Covid, with people poorer and animals thus eating less. 

Citrusdal, says the experienced vet, is relatively secure from distemper. 

“One vaccination at the correct age – 16 weeks – and the dog is unlikely to ever get distemper.” She recommends that dogs get vaccinated every two years, as it depends on how many viruses they are exposed to. 

She explains how Clanwilliam’s geography, close to the N7, allows for the frequent movement of dogs. “Just one with distemper passes it on, and it’s like a veld fire starting.”

Sterilisations in the nature reserve

Van Taak says they arrange a “steri-drive” twice a year, costing about R80,000, for 210 dogs and 88 cats, but that finding a location has become a problem.

“For 15 years we used the agricultural grounds, but as the municipality was in arrears, there was no power – lights and water were cut off.” She says they ended up using the kitchen at Ramskop Nature Reserve to perform the sterilisation operations “for free”. Dogs and cats waited in cages in the toilets. 

“Dogs in post-op lay in the cold, covered by blankets. Between 8 and 10 November we put 38 dogs and feral cats and kittens to sleep.”

Distemper is avoidable if animals are vaccinated early, says Roos – three months being the ideal age. She says that older dogs, especially in the poorer areas, must be brought to be vaccinated, even before the first sign of sickness.

Citrusdal has achieved 70% herd immunity, says Dr Roos, “and is in a much better position”. 

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