By Ruthie Bently
Pet owners are required to get their cats and dogs vaccinated against the rabies disease, and there are other vaccinations our pets get depending on their owner’s preference and veterinarian’s recommendations. The distemper vaccination is not a required vaccination in the United States, but it is strongly advised by veterinarians because distemper can be fatal in certain cases.
A dog can contract distemper from a vaccination and this is known as vaccinial distemper; it is exceedingly rare but is possible. I spoke with my vet, and in his 32 years of practice he has never seen a dog contract distemper from a vaccination. If a dog contracts distemper from an inoculation, it is a situation where the dog’s immune system has already been severely compromised by something else.
The distemper virus is related to measles in humans, and in days gone by they used human measles vaccine to immunize puppies. A dog contracts distemper by coming in contact with an infected dog’s bodily secretions such as drool, discharge from a sneeze or cough, even urine; it is introduced to the body through the mouth or nose. In places of the world where vaccines are not commonly used, distemper can affect any age dog.
The dogs that are most at risk for distemper are usually puppies with an incomplete series of vaccinations or a dog with a questionable vaccination record (i.e. a rescued dog, feral dog, puppy mill dog). A puppy can receive some immunity through the colostrum in its mother’s milk, but this immunity can wear off by the age of 16 weeks if they have not been vaccinated. A dog that contracts distemper may have been housed with rescue dogs that may not have been vaccinated for distemper.
Distemper attacks the mucous membranes of an animal first and begins with the respiratory tract. Symptoms seen can include mucous-like discharge from the nose and eyes, poor appetite, fever, coughing and pneumonia. Then it moves on to the intestinal tract and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. From here it attacks the central nervous system and these symptoms include limb weakness, tics, imbalance, tremors and seizures. In advanced cases of distemper it attacks the brain and causes encephalitis. In extreme cases it causes death. While distemper is not curable, some pets may recover.
Many vets use a modified live virus (MLV) vaccination called DHPP, a combination vaccine that vaccinates for distemper, parvovirus, hepatitis and parainfluenza. A modified live virus is less expensive, and you may only need one dose for it to be effective. The downside of a modified live virus is that it can become active and cause a health issue called neurodistemper. This can occur between ten and twenty one days after a modified live vaccine for distemper is administered. So, yes, a dog vaccinated for distemper can under certain conditions contract distemper, but as previously mentioned it is usually due to an immune deficiency already in a dog’s system.
There is another form of the distemper vaccine called a recombinant format, where a harmless live virus is used as a carrier for the part of the distemper virus that stimulates the immune system’s response. The advantage of using a recombinant form of the distemper vaccination is that no distemper or distemper encephalitis will occur from vaccination.
Distemper is such a virulent virus that it can run through a species population very rapidly. Before you consider skipping your dog’s distemper vaccination, you should be aware there is NO cure for distemper at this time. Dogs cannot get distemper from cats, and cats cannot get distemper from dogs, as they are two different diseases. However, dogs can get distemper from many wild canid carnivores: badgers, ferrets, raccoons, foxes, feral dogs, wolves, coyotes, mink and skunks. As a responsible pet owner, do you really want to take the chance of not vaccinating your dog and having them contract distemper?
Read more articles by Ruthie Bently
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