Distemper is not in Tehama County, but remains a danger – Red Bluff Daily News

If you think your canine companion can’t get distemper because the virus isn’t in Tehama County, think again. It is one of the most contagious viral diseases in dogs, and its incidence has increased in recent decades. In fact, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has reported an unusually high number of cases of distemper virus (CDV) in wildlife populations statewide.

Outbreaks of distemper in wild animals in a specific area also pose an increased risk of distemper in dogs in that area. The virus significantly weakens a dog’s immune system and makes it difficult for them to fight off other types of infection, like the equally devastating parvovirus. Distemper is particularly prevalent in areas like ours, where there are a lot of unvaccinated dogs and where there is an abundance of wildlife, such as raccoons and skunks, which can transmit the virus. Distemper is often fatal, and although there is no cure for it, the most important fact to remember is that it is easily preventable with vaccination.

Although the distemper virus (CDV) cannot be transmitted to humans, they can spread it if a person has it on their hands or clothing, and then comes in contact with an at-risk dog. Additionally, shared food and water bowls and equipment, such as grooming tools, can transmit CDV. Puppies and dogs are usually infected by the aerial spread of the virus through the sneezing and coughing of an infected animal. Thus, the risk of contracting VCT increases when the risk of exposure is high.

Since CDV also affects wild animal populations, potential contact between wild animals and domestic dogs can facilitate the spread of the virus. The disease is found in dogs, ferrets, coyotes, wolves, foxes, skunks and the ubiquitous raccoon. Infected dogs can shed the virus for months, and mother female dogs can pass the virus to their puppies through the placenta. Puppies under four months of age and dogs that have not been vaccinated are easy targets for contracting this deadly disease.

Typically, symptoms appear 7 to 14 days after the animal is infected with the virus, but may take up to 6 weeks. Since it is a multi-faceted disease, it targets multiple organ systems at the same time, which adds to its severity. The first signs include fever, loss of appetite, and clear to green discharge from the nose and eyes. These signs can come and go, lasting only a few days at a time. As a result, guardians may miss or ignore this first phase.

As the disease progresses, the symptoms become more severe and more extensive. CDV can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, and blindness. As the virus attacks the nervous system, dogs can exhibit a gradual deterioration in their motor and mental abilities. The rhythmic muscle contractions can become so extensive that they totally disable the unfortunate pet. Partial and complete paralysis and seizures can also become factors as the disease progresses in severity. These attacks are often called “chewing gum attacks”. As the name suggests, it will appear that the dog is chewing gum.

The virus can also cause thickening and hardening of the pads of the feet, which has earned CDV the nickname “hard pad disease”. Infections without symptoms are common, and dogs can spread the virus for weeks without showing clinical signs. In addition, many dogs can also shed the infectious virus for up to 4 months after recovery. In dogs or animals with weakened immune systems, such as puppies, death can occur two to five weeks after the initial infection.

In order to diagnose the condition, your veterinarian will perform a physical exam and take the dog’s history, including its vaccination status. He will also order antibody tests to confirm exposure and resistance, and various blood tests to assess organ function, as well as to rule out any infection, chemical imbalance or other disease. In addition, although there is no cure for the disease, the resulting treatment for VCT will be supportive care: to prevent secondary infections with the administration of antibiotics, to control dehydration with administration of fluids and to control vomiting, diarrhea and neurological symptoms with administration of various and multiple drugs.

Testing and treatment is extremely expensive. Unfortunately, the overall prognosis for recovery is poor, with over 50 percent of dogs with severe symptoms dying, despite intensive supportive care.

Effective vaccination against distemper has been available since the 1950s, and prior to widespread vaccination, distemper would wipe out the entire population of companion dogs in cities. The distemper vaccine is one of the most rapidly protective vaccines available in veterinary medicine. In the hours following the administration of the vaccination, significant protection may appear, with complete protection occurring within a few days. For something so effective and relatively inexpensive compared to the cost, both monetary and emotional, of trying to save a canine companion, choosing not to vaccinate is ludicrous.

Something you can do to help prevent the spread of distemper, in addition to vaccinating your pet, is to keep pet food and water indoors. Outdoor food and water sources can attract infected animals which contaminate the bowls, transferring the virus to other animals.

Finally, distemper can look like rabies, so you need to be careful not to assume it is distemper.

Ronnie Casey has volunteered with the Tehama County Animal Care Center since moving in 2011. A retired RN, she works to help animals in need in Tehama County. She can be reached at rmcredbluff@gmail.com.

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