Is Canine Distemper real and do you honestly need to vaccinate against it?
I never saw Canine Distemper in veterinary school. I personally saw no outbreaks and saw no physical evidence that it existed, yet I was indoctrinated with the belief that I should insist my clients vaccinate their pets with a combination vaccine that included Canine Distemper, along with several other viral diseases. Being the person that I am, I was not convinced that it was necessary. In fact, part of me wondered if it was a scam to get clients to come to a veterinary office and pay for an office visit and an unnecessary vaccine. In fact, in ten years of practice, I have only seen a handful of puppies come down with what I suspected was canine distemper. Unfortunately, every single one of them died, including one last week in Seymour, CT.
It started fairly benign. A puppy was getting adopted and the new pet-parents asked for a wellness exam due to the fact that the puppy had some nasal discharge and because I was parked at the adoption event. I examined him and diagnosed a respiratory infection, prescribed antibiotics, vitamins, cough medications to use as needed and some TLC instructions for home care. Annoyed, the pet-parents left without getting any of the medications and without paying for the exam. *Sigh*
A day later, a sibling of that puppy was also presented to me for a respiratory infection. In addition, he had some minor vomiting and diarrhea. More cautious this time, I confirmed that the clients were willing to pay for the exam (they were) and I ran a Parvo test, which was negative, and then prescribed a similar protocol, expecting the pup to improve rapidly.
Two days later, the foster mom called stating that the cough and nasal discharge was substantially worse and his eyes were now‘goopy’. I recommended a follow up visit and was astounded to see how much the puppy had deteriorated. After listening to his lungs, I immediately diagnosed pneumonia and advised that the pup be hospitalized for advanced medical care. He just didn’t look right to me.
For two days, I treated this darling black lab puppy with intravenous fluids, antibiotics, electrolytes, vitamins, nebulization treatments, eye ointments and anything I could think of to help him recover. His diarrhea and vomiting stopped, he ate well and he seemed to hold his own, but he did not get better. The foster mom begged to see him, stating that she believed her presence could produce the miracle that would bring him around. Knowing that this can happen, I could not disagree with her, even though I still felt something was just not right about the case. Based on my mobile unit limitations, I could not safely travel with him and expose other pets to his illness, so I returned him to his foster mother with strict instructions for sanitation, care and treatment and instructions to see a local vet for follow up in 2-3 days.
She followed all my instructions and brought him to a local vet when he appeared to be deteriorating even more. The vet read the medical record and shrugged. Clearly, all that could be done had already been done. He knew me and my reputation for thoroughness and couldn’t add anything to my prescribed protocol. The puppy just needed time to recover. He turned away. He paused. I suspect he thought back over his many years of practice, for he was an older vet and had seen many of the diseases that newer, fancier veterinarians (like me) had only read about.
He mentioned as an after thought as he wandered out of the waiting room, “Maybe it is canine distemper…” His voice trailed off and he left the foster mom confused and frightened.
Shortly thereafter, the puppy died.
Foster mom called me and we talked. Yes, I agreed, distemper causes respiratory illness that results in viral pneumonia that is not cured by antibiotics. Yes, it can enter multiple organ systems like the gastrointestinal tract and cause vomiting and diarrhea, but, I added, its signature clinical sign is neurologic problems like shaking, trembling, blindness and seizures. The foster mom sadly recounted that her puppy had indeed shown those signs the day before he died.
Wow. Canine distemper. It does exist. I did some research.
* Wednesday, 07 Jul 2010, 2:55 PM CDT RED WING, Minn. – Police in Red Wing, Minnesota are warning dog owners and residents of an outbreak of canine distemper. (Fox9 news)
* December 14, 2010 gillettenewsrecord.com “We confirmed distemper in 24 dogs, all purebred and purchased from pet stores,” said Donal O’Toole, a pathologist with the Wyoming state Veterinary Laboratory and a professor in the Department of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Wyoming. “This was the largest outbreak of canine distemper I’ve seen in Wyoming in my 21 years at this laboratory.”
*April 16th, canine distemper was confirmed by the WA Animal Diagnostic Disease Laboratory in two King County raccoons, one from Bellevue and one from Redmond (Trilogy). Other raccoons with clinical signs of distemper have been reported to Public Health from Renton, North Bend, and elsewhere in north/northeast King County.
* On December 20, 2000, two of the African wild dogs in one of the breeding packs became ill from an apparently infectious disease. The disease spread rapidly and was first noted in the other breeding packs on January 16, 18, and 22, 2001, respectively. The first deaths occurred on December 21, 2000; deaths peaked from January 30 to February 6, 2001, when 15 of the wild dogs died. The last death was recorded on February 13, 2001. Forty-nine of the 52 animals died during this outbreak. (Center of Disease Control)
* May 2007, BAY NEWS 9 — Pasco County Animal Services has identified an outbreak of canine distemper virus.
Canine Distemper does exist, and it can devastate entire populations of pet dogs. I have now seen it first hand, and as I think back, I can recall some odd illnesses that I now suspect were possible isolated cases.
It is spread by aerosol droplets and contact. It enters the eyes or respiratory tract, then invades the lymph nodes and spreads rapidly to other organs including the gastrointestinal tract, the bone marrow and ultimately, the central nervous system. Secondary bacterial infections and pneumonia are common, but since it is viral, antibiotics are ineffective. Some anti-viral treatments and immune modulation can help, and some dogs can recover, but most have a very poor prognosis and eventually die.
It is primarily prevented by the puppy series of Canine Distemper/Parvo vaccines.
In this era of vaccine wariness, I understand and empathize with a client’s distrust of over-vaccinating their pets. I advocate holistic care whenever possible and avoid administering anything that is unnecessary and dangerous to my patients, including redundant vaccines. However, there is no doubt that Canine Distemper, along with Parvo and other contagious viral illnesses that are covered by the puppy series of vaccines, do exist and can kill their hosts.
So should you vaccinate your puppy? In my opinion, yes.