Canine Distemper Virus

posted: by: Dawn, RVT Tags: "Clinic Specials" "News" 

If you live in Franklin county, or even surrounding counties in Ohio, you’ve probably heard about the dog at the shelter that tested positive for Distemper.  It was just learned that there was also a dog at another shelter also tested positive for Distemper.

What is Distemper?

Distemper is a virus affecting dogs (and wild animals including raccoons, fox, mink, coyote, and skunk-it also affects the domestic and wild ferret) that is very contagious and often deadly.  The virus affects the respiratory tracts as well as the gastrointestinal tract and eventually, the nervous system of its victims.

Symptoms of the virus include eye discharge (usually colored), coughing, nasal discharge, fever, lethargy, decreased appetite, and vomiting. As the disease progresses, neurological symptoms present themselves, such as a circling behavior, head tilt, seizures, odd jaw movements, and sometimes, paralysis.

This is a virus against which we can protect our pet dogs!  When dogs receive their all-in-one vaccine series as puppies, then as adults (usually every 1-3 years after reaching adulthood), Distemper is included.

But parvo virus is also included, and we do see more cases of parvo than distemper.  Why is that?

The viruses are shed is two different ways.  Distemper virus becomes airborne when infected animals cough, and can also be left on food and water dishes.  Parvo virus is shed in feces, and can therefore live in the ground, making it a whole lot easier to spread to other dogs in a wide area.

So how did Distemper become a problem for our local shelters?

Both shelters in questions (and I imagine most shelters), receive dogs in several ways (off the streets, owner surrender, from other shelters needing help with placement).  These shelters will examine, quarantine, and vaccinate these dogs upon arrival.  The isolation period is typically 10-14 days, as most common illnesses will present themselves during that time.  Once determined healthy and adoptable, the dogs go onto the adoption floor.

Part of the distemper problem is that the symptoms can mimic other problems, primarily, kennel cough.  Both are airborne viruses, making it extremely easy to travel to other dogs.  Kennel Cough is common, especially in group housing situations such as shelters and kennels.  Distemper is less common. Treatment for kennel cough often includes antibiotics against secondary bacterial infections, but the virus itself has to run its course.

Distemper virus treatment is supportive, giving meds against nausea, fluids against dehydration, antibiotics against secondary bacterial infections.  Once nervous system damage occurs, it is not reversible.  Distemper is often fatal, and dogs who do survive usually have lasting effects of the virus.

So the issue turns to diseases in the shelters.  One must remember a few things:

1) There are many dogs and few staff to care for the number of dogs housed.  Shelters depend heavily on volunteers to help care for the dogs on the adoption floor.  Medical staff care for the dogs in isolation and requiring medical treatment.

2) Funds are limited in most shelters.  Shelters may receive some government funding, but it’s not enough to provide everything you could ever want for these dogs.  Adoption fees don’t even cover fully the basics of heartworm testing, vaccines, spays/neuters, etc.  When dogs become sick, the shelter will do its best to test and treat them, but sometimes, they must make the difficult decision to humanely euthanize.  Put all expenses and resources into one dog, or spread it out over the entire population of the shelter?

3) Vaccines do not provide immediate protection.  It can take weeks for the body to develop antibodies from a vaccine.  And if a dog is not yet exhibiting symptoms but the virus is already attacking the dog, then a) a vaccine will not help in time, and b) the dog already has a weakened immune system which will make the body unable to form antibodies anyways.

It’s important to remember that shelter staff care deeply for the animals in their care.  It takes a special kind of person to work in a shelter, to be able to say hello and good-bye to animals who want only love and a forever home.  Sometimes, in the face of disease, they are forced to make the difficult, painful decision to humanely euthanize a dog.

In this case, many dogs were euthanized.  Not one of us was there when it happened.  Not one of us personally examined these dogs or watched them, fed them, cared for them.  Not one of us was faced with that difficult decision. 

Yes, you can test for Distemper-it costs money and can take a few days to get the results back. 

Yes, you can quarantine the suspect.  But how many isolation rooms can a building have?  Even clinics with isolation wards usually have several cages/runs to house animals.  Distemper is a disease that travels in the air-highly contagious!

Yes, you can provide supportive care to the victim.  It may survive!  But how many people would simply walk by that now affected dog with lifelong issues in preference to a perfectly happy, healthy dog?

Yes, you can wait and see if this turns out to be kennel cough and not distemper.  You can wait and see if the dog recovers quickly or makes a turn for the worse.  In the meantime, you are risking continually infecting every dog in that shelter.  Isolation protocols in place, there is still a risk.

These are the questions shelter staff must face, and answer, when it comes to the overall well-being of the entire population of dogs in their care.  Their job is to make pets healthy and adoptable, and find homes for them.  No one enjoys making the decision to euthanize an animal.  No one enjoys doing it.  It affects all involved, both emotionally and mentally! 

So before we start judging the recent events of local shelters, think about the disease involved, number of dogs most likely affected, the likely outcome or survival rate, and the well-being of all the dogs in that shelter.  And don’t forget the staff who wear their hearts on their sleeves when caring for these homeless pets.

How can you help?  Donate time, money, resources to your local shelter.  Spay and neuter your pets.  Remember that a pet is yours for the life of the pet.  Adopt from your local shelter rather than buying from a pet store or person from the paper who has puppies.  Become a part of the solution, not the problem.

For more information about Canine Distemper Virus, visit