Canine distemper still a risk

There has been much dialogue and soul searching among the people of California after an outbreak of human measles occurred last Christmas.

The source of contagion was traced to a child visiting Disneyland. Ultimately over 100 people were affected across many states. Part of the controversy? There is a preventative vaccine against measles, but many of these sick children had not received it. You see, there is a group of people who are opposed to vaccinations for children.

Some believed measles to have been eradicated in the United States since 2000. The problem is, we don’t live in a bubble.

We share our Earth with an ever-changing flux of people. Exposure to other people’s viruses and bacteria is as simple as going to the grocery store, sightseeing in San Francisco, a vacation to an exotic locale. I repeat, we do not live in a tidy, self-preserved bubble (gated community attempts aside).

Neither does your dog. So let’s talk about the canine distemper virus, which most of today’s veterinarians in the big cities have never seen. Come practice in Merced County where, simply because of the lack of proper vaccination starting between 6 to 8 weeks of age, we do in fact see this disease. Puppies are at highest risk because of their still-developing immune systems, but even older unvaccinated dogs can contract distemper. Did you know that the canine distemper virus is actually a relative of the human measles virus? (Your dog cannot make you sick.)

The virus is passed directly from one infected dog to another, often by a cough or snotty nose sprayed into the face of another dog. Surprisingly, the virus doesn’t live long in the environment by itself, but people can transmit it accidentally if they’re handling one puppy’s sick nose and spread its mucous to another dog through petting – dogs always run up to you nose first, right?

The first signs of illness start 10 to 14 days after initial exposure. Your dog might have a horrible runny nose, goopy eyes and a deep cough. In the early stages the dog may run a very high fever, 105 degrees or more. It is always on our list of rule-outs for a coughing dog. If we are secure that your puppy is properly vaccinated, we will place it lower on our list but not eliminate distemper entirely. Definitive laboratory diagnosis can be difficult. When clinical signs are present, both blood tests and an oral cheek swab of saliva can aid in the diagnosis of distemper.

There is more than one strain of distemper virus, some more virulent than others. Sometimes the virus moves quickly through its phases; sometimes an owner believes their pet has recovered only to come down with “new” and very serious problems two to three months later. There is no cure for distemper.

After the upper respiratory signs, the virus may affect the gastrointestinal tract. The gastro part, or stomach, responds by vomiting. The intestinal part responds with diarrhea. The dog is miserable, and dehydration and weight loss are quick to follow. Many dogs die at this stage.

If the dog’s body continues to fight, the virus may attack the nervous system, creating palsies and seizures. One particular seizure is called the “chewing gum fit” – it looks as if the dog is chewing gum as its jaws work up and down. This a pathognomonic (classic, diagnostic) seizure disorder of canine distemper.

Once neurological signs are seen, the dog is not expected to ever fully recover though some may be partially stabilized with anticonvulsant medications. Others will carry a twitching paw or be prone to seizures for the rest of their lives. More than 80 percent of affected puppies and unvaccinated older dogs who contract this disease will die of it. The survivors may never be wholly healthy.

And all this for lack of a vaccine. Even dogs enjoy getting together for the good times with their fellow doggie and human friends. Whether your dog is a globetrotter or a stay-at-home, please protect your pets: Vaccinate your loved ones.

Christine McFadden holds a license to practice veterinary medicine and surgery. She has cared for the family pets of Merced at Valley Animal Hospital for more than 30 years. Send questions or comments to drmc@mcmenagerie.com.