Vaccination is Critically Important

Veterinarians in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas have seen a significant uptick in canine distemper cases. The Humane Society of Southern Arizona in Tucson had so many infected dogs they recently halted intakes for 2 weeks to get control of it. Native American reservations have been particularly hard hit.

Back in the day, before large-scale vaccination programs, we saw enough distemper in dogs to diagnose it on physical symptoms alone. We can now confirm our suspicions with a reliable blood test but the disease itself hasn’t changed much. Signs are variable but commonly include a pus-like eye discharge, cough, fever, diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting. If the immune system loses control, especially in puppies, the virus infects the nervous system leading to staggering, seizures, and in the most advanced cases, “chewing gum fits”-uncontrollable movements of the lower jaw. Many recover but some get so sick that euthanasia becomes the only humane option. Distemper is an ugly disease.

Survivors can suffer lifelong disabilities. Permanently hardened foot pads, damaged enamel on the teeth, chronic epileptic seizures, and rhythmic muscle jerking are unmistakable indicators of past infection. Elderly dogs can develop behavior changes from permanent injury to the gray matter of their brains. Establishing a distemper diagnosis with a blood test is important in part because the symptoms can be confused with rabies.

Hospitalization for IV fluid support is essential for the sickest dogs but even that is problematic. Distemper is highly infectious, spreading quickly in confined areas.  Rescue groups, all pet lovers with the best of intentions, may be adding to the problem by transporting dogs with early, undiagnosed distemper for adoption in other states. The stress of travel can only lower resistance. Distemper can spread like wild fire. Strict isolation of infected dogs is crucial.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of prevention. Puppies should have a vaccination series starting at age 6 weeks and repeated every 3 weeks until age 16 weeks. A booster one year later, repeated every 3 years, provides safe and reliable protection.

This is not a time for extreme measures but I advise dog owners to check the vaccination status of man’s and women’s best friends. Be vigilant; this could get worse.