Saturday, February 23, 2013

Distemper in Dogs: In Memory of Petra

Recently in Southwest Virginia, an animal shelter was shut down by the state vet after a suspected distemper outbreak. The parvo virus is the most talked about disease to plague shelters as I have discussed in previous blogs. The reason for that most likely is the explosive bloody diarrhea that makes it so memorable. Distemper works differently, has been around longer, and is actually the cause of more deaths.

My first experience with it was long before I worked in the animal care field. I found a small puppy near my college campus, took her home, and named her Petra. She seemed to be doing well, and I took her for her vaccines. Then she started showing symptoms of illness. She lost her appetite and began to lose weight. She had a runny nose and some diarrhea. then she has a seizure. What was a happy puppy, was suddenly very sick.  It was a Sunday and I paged  Dr. Pilkington right away. He was in church but didn't think twice to tell me to meet him at his office. He looked at Petra and asked if I could leave her with him and he would do all he could. No matter how hard he tried, she didn't make it. It was distemper. I had only had her for about 9 days.

I later learned that the first stage of distemper symptoms appear 6-9 days following exposure. When I found her, she had already been exposed. She was at that age after 8 weeks where she had already lost her mom's immunity, so she really didn't stand a chance. At least she knew love before she passed.

Distemper attacks so many different areas including the brain, the mucous membranes (think nose/eyes), the skin, respiratory tract and on to the gastrointestinal tract. It can mimic a cold, allergies, and even parvo. Over a few days, the nasal discharge turns from clear to yellow and thick. The pet may have a dry cough.

Its a bit unusual for dogs to die as quickly from distemper as my Petra did. Doc said she was so young and skinny when I found her, she didn't have the typical immunity she should have. With some puppies, they may improve temporarily if antibiotics are started as they fight off secondary infections.

The second stage can take up to two to three weeks after exposure. Its at this point that the brain becomes involved. Petra's seizure was the distemper attacking the brain. Sometimes pets will walk in circles, fall over, or appear to be blind. At this stage, an untrained eye would fear rabies, when in fact, it is the distemper causing the damage. The muscles will contract painfully. Often pets with distemper will develop hard pads on the feet and a rough, thorny texture to the nose.

Dogs can survive distemper. When I lived in California, I met a couple who found a dog in Mexico, brought him home and had him treated for distemper. His brain was quite affected and he could not walk normally, but he was loved. The pads of his feet were hard and his teeth were not well protected by enamel which is another side effect of the disease.

Generally dogs who do survive will do so with some type of lasting brain damage. Their behavior may be abnormal and they may be epileptic. Eventually, the damage will most likely worsen and most will need to be humanely euthanized.

On the positive side, proper vaccination can prevent all of this. Just as with parvo, it is important to keep an unvaccinated puppy isolated from the elements. Distemper is passed along very easily and since the disease takes time to manifest itself, you never know if the puppy you are exposing your pet to at the park or pet store is a carrier. So be careful.

Note that cats are not susceptible to this form of distemper. Although there is a cat disease we call distemper, it is not the same. I will explain further in another blog. Humans are also not able to catch this disease even though it is very similar to our measles. Unfortunately many of our wildlife are susceptible and unfortunately, it is the one disease that domestic animals have passed on to wildlife instead of the other way around. Some species are even becoming endangered, including that black footed ferret. So please keep that in mind and vaccinate your pets. Humans have done enough damage to our wildlife. We can stop this damage with proper vaccination. Its not a lot to ask. 

1 comment:

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