Dec 18 2009

Canine Distemper

Many people have heard of the canine distemper virus, whether through personal experience or hearing it on the news.  It is a particularly nasty virus that can have devastating consequences for survivors and even be fatal.  Luckily, it is not common nowadays because of vaccination- however this has led to the lack of information about the disease, even amongst veterinarian professionals.  Some practitioners may never see a true case of canine distemper.  This lack of experience can often lead to misdiagnosis of a sick animal with potentially severe consequences.

Distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus.  It affects dogs as well as other mammals including raccoons and ferrets.  Susceptible animals can be any un-vaccinated dog, but usually affects younger dogs.   I should also note that canine distemper and feline distemper are completely different.

The virus is shed in bodily fluids and secretions (i.e. feces, urine, nasal discharge etc) and infection can be from direct contact with an infected animal or contact with “fomites” which refers to contaminated objects or people.

Exposure to the virus generally results in infection after 1-2 weeks, but can take up to 4-5 weeks.  Early symptoms after infection can be as vagues as lethargy and fever, but if these symptoms are mild, they can be easily missed.

Clinical signs of disease are very similar to signs of “kennel cough”-nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, fever and anorexia.  Distemper infections differ in the fact that they are much more severe.  Kennel cough infections are generally somewhat mild and self limiting and respond well to treatment.  The distemper virus can affect other systems as well, such as the GI tract, the nervous system, the immune system, and even the eyes.  Other clinical signs can include diarrhea, inflammation within the eyes, KCS (dry eye), blindness and even neurological signs such as seizures.  The virus can cause immunosuppression, which makes the animal very susceptible to secondary infections.  Pneumonia is one common as a secondary illness.  Neurological signs can develop at the same time as other clinical signs or even months after infection.

Diagnosis can be difficult but should be based on clinical and diagnostic testing.  Sometimes diagnosis cannot be made until after death.  Testing is available for tissue or fluid samples, but false negatives can be common.  Microscopic examination of tissue samples obtained on necropsy is considered the best way. 

Treatment of distemper infections can be long and stressful.  Hospitalization is generally required in the beginning.  Antibiotics are used to help treat secondary bacterial infections; supportive care (i.e. IV fluids, maintaining proper nutrition and rest) is also necessary.  Recovery is possible but lengthly.  Survivors may be more susceptible to respiratory infections due to damage of the respiratory tract from the virus.  Animals may also experience neurological damage which could be permanent depending on the severity of the illness.

Vaccination is very effective in preventing the disease and dog owners need to be educated by their veterinarians to ensure new canine family members are properly protected.

As always if you have any concerns about your pets health, don’t be afraid to talk to your veterinarian and ask questions to make sure you understand what is happening with your pet.

Written by Dr. Cynthia Moon
Veterinarian at Wayside Waifs

Oct 12 2009

Vaccinating Your Pet, Part 2

Last time we discussed types of vaccinations and when your puppy/kitten should receive them.  Today is the completion of “Vaccinating Your Pet” with information about how many vaccinations your little one needs and how often.

Everyone has the big question, “How many vaccinations does my puppy or kitten need?”  Many of us have the idea  in our heads that a puppy or kitten needs 3 shots, and they are protected. 

When the animal is born, they have antibodies from the mother circulating in their bloodstream, just like people.  These antibodies can be present for up to 4 months of age, but may disappear anytime between 8 weeks and 16 weeks of age.  If a vaccine is given when these antibodies are present, they interfere with the immune response to the vaccine-this means that if the antibodies from the mother disappear, the animal is not considered “protected” from the disease because the vaccine was not able to work properly. 

By repeating the vaccine during that 8-16 week period, one hopes to administer the vaccine at a time when the antibodies from the mother have disappeared so as to stimulate a protective immune response from the vaccine, but soon enough after the disappearance as to decrease the period during which the animal is susceptible to the disease.  This is because if the antibodies have disappeared and the vaccine has not been effective yet, they are not protected from the disease.

Again, the frequency of vaccination is determined by an animal’s individual situation-for example, in the shelter setting where puppies and kittens are more frequently exposed to disease than in a home setting, we repeat vaccinations every 2 weeks, starting at 6 weeks of age.  So, if we follow these rules and give a puppy or kitten 3 shots and stop there, it is still only going to be 10 weeks old and consequently still susceptible to disease.

For optimal protection from disease, these vaccinations need to be repeated until the animal is at least 16 weeks old, and depending on the initial age at vaccination and the frequency used, an animal may receive anywhere between 3 to 6 boosters for their vaccinations.  So, in the answer to the most common question, “My puppy has had 3 shots, can he still get parvo?”, the answer is “Yes, your puppy can have 3 shots and still get parvo.”

Vaccinations can be a tricky and confusing subject, but with proper communication with your veterinarians, it can be made simple and understandable. 

Written by Dr. Cynthia Moon
Wayside Waifs Veterinarian

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