Q: I adopted a dog a few days ago from an animal shelter and it was diagnosed today with Distemper by my veterinarian. I am devastated and don’t know what to do. What could have been done to prevent this from happening?

A: Distemper is a very contagious and serious viral disease with no known cure. It is spread through the air and by direct or indirect contact with an infected animal. As an example, using bedding or bowls that have not been properly cleaned can easily spread the disease between animals.

The most susceptible dogs are young dogs that have not received all their puppy vaccines and older dogs that have not been properly vaccinated. Once a dog has been properly vaccinated they are immune to the disease.

The initial stages of the disease may look like a simple upper respiratory disease with nasal discharge and fever but does not respond to antibiotics and supportive care and quickly turns into seizures and death.

In the beginning, it can be quite challenging to differentiate whether an animal has Distemper or some other cause of an upper respiratory disease such as kennel cough or canine flu especially when they come from a shelter.

Unfortunately, we typically only get a definitive diagnosis when the dog starts to have seizures towards the end of the disease process. Testing for the disease is expensive and takes a long time and, sadly, the dog typically dies before we get the results back. Once a dog starts having seizures its prognosis is very poor and death is inevitable. Occasionally a dog will survive the disease, but those that do survive have permanent neurological damage and can start having seizures later in life.

This disease, as well as other infectious diseases, can be minimized with appropriate quarantine protocols in a shelter environment as well as proper disinfecting protocols to protect the general population of animals in a shelter. All dogs entering a shelter should go through a rigorous quarantine period and examination by a veterinarian before they are put into the general population.

Proper vaccination protocols for all animals entering a shelter should be adhered to and shelter staff should maintain detailed health records on all the animals in the shelter. If any animal appears to be having any signs of upper respiratory distress they should be immediately placed into quarantine for monitoring and treatment. Basic disinfecting protocols and rigorous quarantine regulations can minimize, if not eliminate, the spread of this deadly disease.

Q: My cat is strictly indoors and never goes outside. Does she really need vaccines since she is not exposed to other cats?

A: Cats seem to be able to sneak outside even when they are indoor cats so it is important that they have at least some immunity to the diseases they might be exposed to outside.

Therefore, the recommendation for cats is that they receive all their kitten vaccines which includes rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, panleukopenia, feline leukemia, and rabies.

Once the kitten has been properly vaccinated and is strictly indoors then your only obligation is to have them vaccinated for Rabies on a regular basis.

It will soon become law in the State of Arizona that all cats be current on their Rabies vaccine just as it is now for dogs. That will either be yearly or every 3 years depending on the type of vaccine that your veterinarian is using.

Although every 3 years would seem easier, the cat specific yearly vaccine is better for your cat and also gets your kitty into the clinic for yearly exams.

Cats – even indoor cats - are the most susceptible to being exposed to Rabies because of the incidence of Rabies in bats. It is not uncommon for a bat with Rabies to enter a house and the owner to come home and find the cat playing with it. Protect your indoor cat by making sure they are up-to-date on their vaccines!

Dr. Julianne Miller is a Flagstaff veterinarian. She can be reached at drmiller@canyonpet.com

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