Three more cats have had to be euthanized after contacting a virus at the New Westminster Animal Shelter.
The City of New Westminster is taking action to contain an outbreak of calicivirus at the Queensborough shelter. To date nine cats have been euthanized because of the virus.
"It is a very infectious viral feline disease," said Blair Fryer, the city's communications manager. "It has a very high mortality rate and can spread easily and quickly if it is not contained."
Anyone dealing with the animals is required to wear full biohazard gear.
"A veterinarian attended today. Three cats were found to be infected with this strain of the calicivirus and were found to be suffering," Fryer told The Record Tuesday afternoon. "They were euthanized."
Seventeen cats remain at the New Westminster Animal Shelter, all of which are in quarantine. Some of the cats are in isolation rooms, while others are in the general population.
"There is one that appears to be ill," Fryer said.
Fryer said the city's first priority was to contain the virus, which has been done, and to minimize the impact on the cat population at the shelter. The city has been consulting with a veterinarian, who has been consulting with other veterinarians, as well as a virologist at the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture.
The veterinarian asked that five cats be transported to his office - two cats currently in the isolation room, two from the general population and the cat that is showing signs of being ill. The animals remained in the animal services vehicle, where the veterinarian did the blood test Tuesday.
"It takes a couple of days to get the results back," Fryer said.
Fryer noted that the strain of the virus is so communicable that the veterinarian wore biohazard gear to conduct the test.
"It doesn't necessarily mean they will be euthanized," he said of cats that test positive for the disease. "If they test positive, it is not good news."
Dave Cole, supervisor of the city's animal control services, said cats can carry the virus but not show any signs.
"They can pass it on to other and become sick," he added.
Fryer said the cats carrying the virus would not be able to come into contact with any other cats.
"It is very sad," Cole said. "It's been very emotional for the staff. They are dealing with this all day long."
Shelter staff must don biohazard gear and goggles when they are handling the cats but can interact with the dogs.
"The dogs are fine," Fryer said. "They are not at risk."
According to Fryer, the virus doesn't affect other species or humans - only cats.
"They have spent the last week consulting with veterinarians to confirm," he said. "As a precaution, public programs and access was limited."
According to the City of New Westminster, shelter staff first saw evidence of calicivirus on Nov. 6. When it was confirmed by a veterinarian, staff took steps to contain the outbreak, which included isolating the cat population onsite and redirecting any new cat intakes to other animal shelters in the region.
"This is a very unfortunate situation and we are making every effort to deal with this and prevent further spread of the disease," said Nancy Millar, senior animal services officer for the city. "We continue to consult with our veterinarian as to the best course of action."
Melina Csontos, who has volunteered at the shelter for nearly 10 years, is devastated by the news that the cats she's come to love are sick.
"I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to them," she sobbed. "It is heartbreaking for me."
In addition to worrying about the cats at the New Westminster Animal Control Shelter, Csontos is also concerned about the well-being of her own pets. Having fostered one of the cats at the shelter, she's worried she may have inadvertently brought the virus into her home.
She's hopeful her cats will be fine as it's been more than two weeks since they had contact with the foster cat, and they appear to be fine.
Csontos believes the animal control shelter would be in a better position to handle outbreaks like this if it had a new or renovated space. She said there's little space in its sick room and some of the cages are made of wood, which can't be easily sanitized.
She hopes some good can come out of the tragedy that has required cats to be euthanized.
Sources told The Record that the cats have a form of the virus known as virulent systemic feline calicivirus, which has a mortality rate of about 70 per cent and can cause intense suffering.