Distemper Break in a Humane Society

Distemper is an old disease that has not changed much over the last 20 years. One of the things that has been noticed is with Parvo outbreaks we begin to see more distemper. This has been the case twice in my career. It also happens in kennel housing where we concentrate so hard to get Parvo immunity built up that we fall behind in preventing distemper. Occasionally we'll see Parvo puppies recover and then come down with distemper.

Canine distemper virus can also infect several other species, including ferrets and wild animals like coyotes, foxes, wolves, skunks and raccoons. Distemper virus cannot persist in the environment long (3 hours if 70 F). It has to be spread from dog to dog or wildlife to dog.

Two factors contribute to the difficulty in controlling:
  1. Distemper looks like many other diseases, including Kennel Cough complex. Once we realize it is not an upper respiratory disease, we've already spread it. Coughing dogs can spread the virus 20 feet with a single cough!
  2. Most of our kennels do not have barriers across the aisle to the next set of runs. To stop the outbreak in rows of dogs that are looking at each other, we have found it useful to erect shower curtains down the center of the aisle. This barrier is inexpensive and effective. Once the outbreak is under control, it's OK to remove them. It is always challenging with kennels that have chain link dividers—solid walls are much better at limiting the spread of viruses.

Causes of the break need to be determined so you can avoid a re-occurrence. We know it is brought in with a dog that was not protected. Make sure you know where the vaccination breakdown was and make sure everyone understands the issue. Not vaccinating effectively will get the same problem in a repeat performance. I like telling my personnel we want a vaccine for distemper before the dog breathes the air of the kennel! They seem to get the importance that not one dog can slip through.

The key to preventing viral diseases in the shelter is to keep your dogs' immunity level higher than the wild virus level. Cleaning and disinfection is so important at keeping wild virus numbers low in the shelter. It's inevitable - we will get the virus in house, but if our immunity is higher than the wild virus numbers, we do not see the disease or see it spread. That is success!

Distemper outbreaks are heartbreaking so keep your head up – you will get through it. Find the cause and correct the issue to prevent a repeat performance. If you want to read further, Infectious Diseases for Shelter Vets by Kate Hurley and Lila Miller is a great reference book.

I hope this raises your awareness of disinfection and vaccination timing. If we can assist you let us know!

If you need help, call us at 1-800-786-4751.

-Dr. B
Don Bramlage, DVM, Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health

The materials, information and answers provided through this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of a qualified veterinarian or other pet health care professional. Consult your own veterinarian for answers to specific medical questions, including diagnosis, treatment, therapy or medical attention.

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