Decoding Vaccine Alphabet Soup Part 1: Distemper

So one of the local breed rescue groups recently suffered an outbreak of Distemper in a group of dogs they rescued from the shelter.  In the end, I think 3 of 8 dogs died from the disease.

Their experience reminded me that I wanted to write a blog about vaccines…primarily what diseases they protect your pet from.  In the off-chance you’re interested in what we vets are sticking into your dogs bodies when they come in here for their annual exams.  I figure I’ll write it as a series, and I’ll add to it when I can.

So, in light of the tragic happenings to our local rescue group friends, I decided to start with Distemper. 

Distemper is the “D” part of the DHLPP virus vaccine.  Generally the dog gets a puppy series of shots at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age.  At our clinic we booster the vaccine annually until the dog is about 5, then we booster it every 3 years (excluding the “L” or Lepto vaccine which I think I’ve talked about in a previous blog, and needs to be boostered annually). 

So the specific, dry, factual info about the disease you can Google.  I”ll just tell you a little about my experiences with it.

Distemper is a highly contagious virus that is generally spread via coughing and sneezing. 

The thing about distemper is its unpredictability.  In mild cases, it just causes a cough in the dog that is indistinguishable from Kennel Cough or Bordatella.  In severe cases, it rapidly attacks the dogs neurological system resulting in debilitating seizures and death.  The frustrating thing is there is no way to predict how it’s gonna go.

I’d say 95% of the distemper cases I see come from the shelter system.   (Nothing against shelters, it’s just the nature of the beast when you have large populations of stray dogs moving through one place).  The rest seem to come from flea markets (like McKinney Trade Days, or Canton…careful what you get in those places).   I don’t see it in our general healthy AMCOP pet population because the vast majority of our patients keep up with their pets shots, thus they are protected!  (we’re pretty sheltered here in the ‘burbs, I saw a lot more Distemper in regular client dogs when I worked in East Dallas)

I try to warn folks that when they get a pet from any of these sources to keep an eye out for coughing, runny eyes, etc for about two weeks or so. 

What I generally see initially is a dog with upper respiratory infection signs.  Cough, snotty nose, runny eyes.  At this point it could be anything in the infectious tracheobronchitis/rhinitis/pneumonia  family:  kennel cough, other bacteria, viruses, or Distemper.

Some of the URI’s can get pretty nasty and require hospital stays and some high-powered antibiotics, but assuming they don’t succumb to the pneumonia, they can pull through and be ok. 

The thing about Distemper, is that often, you get them through the respiratory part, then anywhere from days to weeks later, the dog starts to seizure.  This means the virus attacked the nerves in the brain and ate off the myelin sheath that helps the nerves conduct their electrical impulses.  Thus the signals go haywire, resulting in varying degrees of disturbances ranging from muscle twitches to grand mal seizures, coma and death.

Again, there is no way to predict who will just have a cold and who will die from neuro disease.  There are tests for the Distemper virus itself, but they are frustrating to interpret (any previous vaccination interferes with results), expensive, and take time to get results.  More often than not, we just support the patient, boost their immunity any way we can, and pray that it doesn’t hit the brain. 

The virus attacks the cells that lay down enamel on the teeth, so a lot of the time we don’t get to find out if it was distemper (in the ones who don’t get neuro signs) until their adult teeth come in with brown stains known as enamel hypoplasia. 

So, that’s why we vaccinate your dog for distemper. 

If he’s a puppy or previously unvaccinated adult, he won’t be fully protected ’til he’s had the full set of shots.  Thus those shelter pups can still get Distemper even though they got a shot in the shelter.  Depends on things like: when they were exposed,  how healthy they were when they got the shot, and whether they had a booster yet. 

So there you to, a little Dr. Carroll-style info on Canine Disemper Virus.  I just gave you some highlights, if you want any more info or have any questions, just let me know in the comments section. 

I think next time, I’ll cover Parvo…to be continued.


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