Canine Distemper: A Preventable Crisis

The Deadly Impact of Canine Distemper

Canine Distemper a Death Sentence for Shelter Dogs yet Preventable! Prevention Starts with You!

New Hope Animal Rescue wants to raise awareness around the deadly impact this entirely PREVENTABLE, yet often deadly virus is having on innocent, adoptable dogs in Texas. Stopping deadly distemper starts with pet owners like you and me. 

Canine Distemper is said to be 80% fatal in puppies and 50% fatal in unvaccinated adult dogs yet is nearly 100% preventable with proper DAPP vaccination! Humans can stop the spread by properly vaccinating their pets but sadly most strays and owner surrenders entering shelters have not been vaccinated by their owners. In Texas we are seeing distemper outbreaks in shelters that haven’t had outbreaks for many years.

Why are sick dogs not immediately separated from the rest of the shelter population?  When a distemper positive dog enters a shelter, it can take weeks to show symptoms and initial symptoms often look like kennel cough, so this highly contagious virus is quickly spread throughout the shelter population, and shelter grounds are contaminated before it is even detected. Sadly, once a test confirms there is a distemper-positive dog at a shelter, the shelter is left with no choice but to start euthanizing any symptomatic dogs along with healthy dogs that potentially could have been exposed to this highly contagious virus.

How Canine Distemper Spreads and Affects Dogs

How is distemper spread?  Distemper is highly contagious and easily spread through contact with infected urine, feces, placenta or saliva and up to 10 feet through airborne droplets. Which means a dog many kennels down from a distemper positive dog can get sick without coming into any direct contact with the sick dog or their urine, saliva or feces.

But I keep my dog at home, away from other dogs — can it still catch distemper?  YES! If your dog has not been properly vaccinated with the DAPP vaccine, your dog can catch canine distemper from common backyard wildlife like racoons, squirrels, skunks, weasels as well as foxes and coyotes. Ferrets can also carry distemper. If your dog escapes your yard or gets lost, it could also get exposed to distemper at your local shelter.  Your dog is protected from distemper as long as your dog has received proper DAPP [DHPP] vaccinations and boosters.  

If you have no choice but to surrender your dog to a shelter, please get them vaccinated with DAPP prior to surrendering — if you cannot afford a vaccine, notify your shelter and ask them if they will administer the DAPP vaccine to your pet in their parking lot and allow you to come back 3 days later [2 weeks is ideal!] to surrender.     

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Distemper

What are the signs and symptoms of canine distemper?  Distemper often manifests like a harmless upper respiratory infection. However, in distemper dogs this often turns into pneumonia without intervention. Distemper also attacks gastrointestinal [vomiting, diarrhea, inappetence] and nervous systems.

The neurological symptoms, which can appear weeks or months after initial symptoms clear, can be muscle twitching, chewing-gum fits, extra sensitivity to sound and light [squinting], circling, head tilt, paranoid or anxious behavior, vocalization, paralysis and seizures. Sadly, most dogs do not survive the neurological phase of the disease.

Because the virus attacks any system in the body it wants, a dog with distemper may also develop hardened and thickened paw pads, skin and ear issues and even damage to tooth enamel.

Treating Canine Distemper: Supportive Care and Early Intervention

Is there a treatment for canine distemper?  There is no cure for canine distemper but supportive care and early intervention greatly increases a dog’s chance of survival. Out of the 6 distemper exposed dogs New Hope has rescued so far this year, only one puppy passed once she reached the neurological phase of the disease. The key is to work hard to prevent distemper from becoming neurological by providing distemper serum immediately [available through Dr. Huddleston in Houston — read more about his work to save distemper dogs here], immune-boosting supplements, fluids, good nutrition and supportive care and appropriate medications. Dogs that do not reach the neurological phase generally have a good prognosis.

There is a human toll we can’t ignore as well, as shelter workers who love and care for these dogs are now forced to make heartbreaking decisions to mass euthanize to clear the virus from their facility, which affects the workers’ mental health and well-being. The general public often doesn’t understand these decisions as they do not understand the disease, and many times shelter workers face harsh criticism making their job even more heartbreaking. Be kind to your shelter workers. 

The Importance of DAPP Vaccination in Preventing Distemper

By understanding canine distemper and how to stop the spread, you can help prevent the needless suffering of dogs simply by educating your friends, co-workers and neighbors about the importance of DAPP vaccinations and making sure your own dogs are current.  

How You Can Help a Save the Life of a Distemper Dog

New Hope Animal Rescue is always looking for fosters who are willing to take in distemper and distemper exposed dogs.

If your resident dog(s) are healthy and current on their vaccinations, they should not contract distemper from a distemper-exposed foster dog. A fully vaccinated dog is a dog that has received at least two DAPP [or DHPP] vaccines, one of which was given in the last 3 years and at the age of 5 months or older.  Do not foster a distemper dog if you own a ferret or have an immune compromised dog [steroid medications, Cushing’s, undergoing chemo]. Please help us save these innocent lives if you can!

At New Hope Animal Rescue, we believe that distemper dogs deserve a chance to LIVE, so we have linked resources for pet owners or animal rescues who may have a dog with distemper. Please use these resources to help guide your discussion with your veterinarian:  

APA! Distemper Treatment Protocol
There is a Cure for Distemper
Surviving Distemper
Distemper Don't Kill