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Vaccination: Canine Distemper

Since vaccines have managed to be in the headlines for the last 3 or 4 weeks I felt a comment was necessary. Vaccines have changed the lives of humans and their pets dramatically. Over the last 50 years vaccines are responsible for greatly increasing dog’s and cat’s lifespans. I’m going to use Canine Distemper to illustrate this.  


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Simply put, Canine Distemper is an awful viral disease. It can infect dogs of any age but was most commonly seen in puppies and unvaccinated young dogs. It usually started with respiratory symptoms. They’d come in with matted eyes, crusted noses, coughing, and sneezing. Soon, gastrointestinal symptoms would develop leading to dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea. Treatment consisted of hydration therapy (IV fluids) and antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial pneumonia and other infections. No direct treatment was, or is, available to combat the virus, so it had to run its course. This means we’d do all supportive care possible while waiting for natural immunity to develop. We had about a 30% to 50% fatality rate despite treatment.

If the puppy survived, we waited on pins and needles for the next few weeks because this virus had a nasty habit of hiding in the nervous system. Often 1 to 4 weeks after puppies survived the crisis, nervous system symptoms would develop. They usually started as twitches of a leg or a side of the face. This sometimes was as far as the symptoms would progress but more often they would further progress to uncontrollable shaking of 1 or more legs, facial paralysis, inflammation of the retinas with possible blindness and seizures. We’d call these chewing gum seizures because the dog would slobber and its mouth would chatter with uncontrollable jaw muscle contractions. The nervous form was often fatal but if a dog survived it usually had permanent damage. Many dogs would live with permanent twitching of a leg or facial muscle and many developed lifetime seizures that were referred to as “post distemper epilepsy.” This form of epilepsy was extremely difficult to control medically.

Notice I’ve been discussing this disease in the past tense.  That’s because I have seen maybe 1 or 2 cases in the last 15 to 20 years.  Why?...Herd mentality.  As the disease has diminished veterinarians refuse to let their guard down and recommend ALL dogs be immunized and boostered throughout their lives even though their chance of exposure is dramatically less than 30 years ago. Even though cases of Distemper are rare in my practice, a week does not go by that I don’t read in my daily veterinary news feed about an outbreak in a shelter somewhere in the country. Furthermore this virus also infects raccoons, coyotes, wild dogs, skunks and probably other species. Every year there are outbreaks in wildlife somewhere in the state.  By vaccinating the “herd” we’ve managed to keep this horrible disease out of our household pet populations.

But now this new wave of vaccine anxiety has raised my anxiety about my patients. Have we been over vaccinating? Perhaps. Vaccine reactions have always been an occurrence but are very rare and easily cared for. A recent scare was created around the distemper vaccine potentiating autoimmune disease. A lot research and analysis has not revealed any causal link to this.  These scares, mostly unfounded, have done some good. In the last 10 years enough public pressure was placed on pharmaceutical companies to force them to finally extend studies on their vaccines leading to 3 year labels on man.  Whenever possible we use these extended vaccines because we too believe that less can be better in certain circumstances.

We are always looking out for the safety of our patients and develop vaccine protocols on an individual basis.  We only give what we feel they need and in a minimalist fashion. So, be part of the canine herd and vaccinate when necessary. You’re protecting your loved one and indirectly all the dogs in your neighborhood.

Fun fact?  Canine Distemper virus is a “cousin” to the human measles virus. That’s why I used it as an example. 30 years ago we actually used the measles vaccine in young puppies to trick their immune system into developing antibodies against Distemper. Vaccines have since been modified several times making this an ancient practice.


Dr. Jerry Miller is an alumni of OSU Veterinary school. He has been practicing in Southwest Ohio for over 35 years.

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