Canine Distemper Virus on the move - and jumping ship, too

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: July 12, 2011
Published: December 29, 2007
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I’ve got this cute-as-a-button Jack Russell from puppy mill origins (sense a theme in this months posts on my patients?). His first visit: Mild upper respiratory symptoms, for which we prescribed augmentin (Clavamox) ASAP. Second visit (one week later): Heavy duty fever and runny nose in addition to sneezing. Bloodwork: Highly suggestive of Canine Distemper Virus (CDV).

Canine Distemper is a feared viral infection among pups of a certain age (3 to 6 weeks, especially), though any unvaccinated dog is considered highly susceptible as well. Very similar to measles in its basic make-up, this bug is known more for its respiratory and neurologic system effects than for its similarity to human viruses.

Thank God for that. The last thing I need is to have nervous parents breaking down my door worried over their children’s safety when a puppy is infected. Nonetheless, in an overabundance of caution, I’ve taken to asking that possibly infected dogs be isolated from children (for the good of both creatures).

While you may think me alarmist in my methods, there is some evidence that CDV likes to jump ship an awful lot. Yet this possibility for humans isn’t even considered worth mentioning by most veterinary specialists in zoonotic (cross species) diseases—or by the CDC, for that matter.

Nonetheless, there’s an open question on the issue of Paget’s disease (an uncommon human bone disease) and CDV. This issue gets brought up enough in human pro-vaccination discussions (get your MMR!) that it makes sense not to ignore a family’s vaccination status when it comes to a positive distemper dog, but I hasten to point that there's no evidence of transmission between pets and people.

While humans may not ever be considered at risk from CDV, it is a big deal among sea lions and otters, big cats, wild canids and other wildlife species. Their ranks are being severely decimated in some instances by the virus many susceptible (typically stray or wild) dogs carry around with them.

One simple Google search confirms the importance of the issue even in places as nearby as California, where sea lions are succumbing to CDV and no wild canids are nearby to take responsibility. Presumably, local strays are having an impact on their populations, though evidence of direct transmission is scarce.

Either way, here’s one place where we vets can be sure your dogs are better off vaccinated. If this little Jack’s example isn’t enough to strike fear into your heart, consider the plight of our innocent wildlife and keep you kids up to date on their vaccines (at least every three years for most).