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The York Region OSPCA shelter in Newmarket, Ont., has begun euthanizing about 350 animals affected by a ringworm outbreak. ((CBC))

An animal shelter north of Toronto has started euthanizing about 350 animals following an outbreak of ringworm.

A statement on the website of the York Region branch of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is Newmarket, Ont., says that because of the ringworm epidemic, the facility "regrets that [it] is closed to the public until further notice."

"We are unable to accept animals, and our adoption and foster programs are suspended, also until further notice," the statement says.

The shelter could not contain the outbreak of the highly contagious fungal infection.

"Approximately 60 [of the animals to be euthanized] are dogs; most all of the rest are cats," said Rosyln Ryan, spokeswoman for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "There are some rabbits, which also speaks to the fact that it has spread from cats to dogs to rabbits."

An OSPCA official said the fact the ringworm had spread to the rabbits is of particular concern, because it meant the ringworm was jumping to species not normally susceptible to the disease. Six workers at the shelter have contracted ringworm.

Ryan said the ringworm is "particularly aggressive," and it's "not that common."

Guards placed at shelter

Kate MacDonald, the OSPCA's chief executive, said the Newmarket branch will undergo a thorough cleansing and an inspection to ensure the ringworm is eradicated before it reopens for adoptions.

In the meantime, security guards are stationed at the shelter, apparently to ensure no one tries to rescue the doomed animals.

MacDonald says the OSPCA does "not take euthanasia lightly" and is "extremely saddened by the situation."

"We are assured by our veterinarians, and we trust in their judgment," MacDonald said. "This is the only way to contain what could easily become a broadspread public health issue."

In animals, ringworm causes small patches of hair loss and skin discolouration. Animals begin scratching and break the skin, attempting to get relief.

Veterinarians say an outbreak inside an animal shelter can quickly become unmanageable.

Ryan said shelter staff sought extensive advice and found that euthanizing the animals was the only option. The final decision was made by OSPCA veterinarians.

"It is heartbreakingly difficult for those front-line workers and volunteers who work with these animals day in and day out. It's a heart-wrenching situation for us all," said Ryan. 

Newmarket MPP Frank Klees said he is opposed to the decision to put the animals down.

"Ringworm does not kill," said Klees. "There are varying degrees and strains, but they're all treatable, so there are ways that we can save many of these animals."

Klees has appealed to Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Rick Bartolucci to intervene, but the minister said he will not oppose the shelter's decision to euthanize the animals.

"As tragic as it is, I think it's a decision that we should abide by because it's made by the experts," said Bartolucci.

OSPCA takes 'easy solution': Toronto society head

Toronto Humane Society president Bob Hambley says ringworm is treatable and this type of action is unprecedented.

He says the OSPCA is "taking the easy solution," and should consult with outside experts to look at alternatives to save the animals. Hambley adds in a statement that MacDonald has "failed in her duties to protect animals and should immediately step down."

Hambley's accusation follows an OSPCA raid on the Toronto shelter last November in which five senior managers were charged with animal cruelty. The dispute between the two sides was settled last month, and the shelter is due to reopen on June 1 with a new slate of directors.

With files from CBC's Samira Hussain