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updated 12/15/2010 7:06:49 PM ET 2010-12-16T00:06:49

An estimated 1,200 dogs at a Kansas kennel were euthanized after an outbreak in Wyoming of the highly contagious disease distemper was linked to the large-scale breeding operation.

Kansas Livestock Commissioner Bill Brown said the state started investigating the Beaver Creek Kennels near Oberlin in September after being contacted by Wyoming's state veterinarian about distemper cases at a pet store in Cheyenne.

Brown said Wednesday that the Kansas Animal Health Department quarantined the kennel twice after investigators confirmed several cases of distemper in puppies that were being sold out of state. When breeder Jeff Fortin couldn't sell dogs because of the quarantines, he ran out of money to pay staff members and take care of the animals.

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"It became an economic situation, and consequently became a health, safety and welfare issue for the puppies," Brown said. "The owner couldn't feed his dogs, his help left, and health, safety and welfare became an even bigger issue."

Distemper, which is usually lethal, can be spread through contact with wildlife, as well as through other infected dogs.

Brown said no shelters would take the dogs because of the outbreak, so the decision was made to euthanize them.

"The Animal Health Department humanely euthanized those animals through intravenous injection," he said. "It was an agonizing decision on everyone's part. But when it came down to it, it was a unanimous agreement by all parties that this was the best step."

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The dogs were buried on farmland in Decatur County after the Kansas Department of Health and Environment allowed Fortin to dispose of the bodies without a permit.

Fortin couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday because he didn't answer his phone and his voicemail box was full. Messages left with the owner of the Wyoming pet store where the distemper outbreak was first reported did not return messages seeking comment.

Donal O'Toole, a professor and pathologist with the University of Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, said 24 confirmed cases of distemper were identified in his state, primarily at pet stores in Cheyenne and Casper that bought puppies from Fortin's kennel.

"I've been here 21 years, and that is the biggest single-source episode of distemper I've ever seen," he said. He also said he has never heard of any cases where that many dogs were euthanized at once.

O'Toole told The Associated Press that since the pet store where the disease was first identified is at a mall, it's unlikely wildlife had anything to do with the outbreak.

""We're trying to sequence the virus and see what strain of virus we're dealing with," he said. "We think it traces back to the Fortin kennel because that's where all the pups were coming from. We've found no other sources."

O'Toole said the Kansas case is reflective of a May USDA audit critical of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's enforcement efforts. Auditors criticized inspectors for being too lenient with violators, often recommending no action be taken even for repeat violators.

Under a consent agreement between the Kansas Animal Health Department Fortin, he can get back to business in six months if he meets stringent requirements, Brown said.

Nearly three years of USDA inspection reports for Fortin's kennels show violations for things like failure to keep adequate records, failure to adequately treat animals with health problems and allowing trash, junk and discarded kennel materials near large dog enclosures.

USDA spokesman David Sacks said Fortin was fined $8,795 in February 2006 for facility violations, and was issued a warning letter in March for facility violations and denying access to inspectors.

"That's round one," he said. "An official warning does not bring a fine, but it puts people on notice that if the violations are repeated there will be stricter penalties."

He said the USDA would inspect the kennel property after state investigators finish their probe, and additional sanctions could be levied.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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