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Answer #18: Distemper

A cat that contracts panleukopenia contracts a virus that kills all of its white blood cells, which can lead to an anemic condition and can open the body to other infections. Kittens between the ages of 2 to 6 months are most at risk for contracting the virus. Keeping your cat's vaccinations up to date is the safest way to ensure they won't get sick.

Q: I heard that I can buy my pet’s vaccines at certain stores and then give them myself. This would save me a lot of time and money. Is this a good idea?

A: To understand the answer to this question, it is important that you first understand the science behind vaccines and the importance of vaccinating correctly.

A vaccine is made specifically to trigger the immune system to recognize a certain disease so that an animal or person will have immunity if they are exposed to that disease again.

The immune system is extremely complicated and involves many layers of protection against many types of diseases. Because of the complexity of the immune system and the large and diverse spectrum of diseases, you must understand what vaccines are necessary for your pet; otherwise, you run the risk of over vaccinating your animal which can cause other issues.

Vaccines are also made to be given in a very specific timeline to ensure that we get the best response to the vaccine thereby ensuring protection. It is also vital that the animal is healthy with a strong immune system before any vaccine is given. An animal that is sick or immunocompromised will not have an appropriate response to a vaccine leaving it unprotected. It is also very important that the vaccine is handled and given correctly because any mishandling or inappropriate administration can render the vaccine ineffective.

So, while it might seem that giving vaccines is an easy task, it is, in fact, a highly complicated task and takes a thorough understanding of the immune system to be done properly.

Your veterinarian is highly educated in providing the best vaccine schedule for your pet and will only give the ones that your pet absolutely needs to avoid over vaccination. Without the appropriate knowledge and understanding, it can be quite dangerous to vaccinate your own animal as you might be inadvertently leaving them unprotected against disease.

The rabies vaccine is the only vaccine that is legally required to be given by a veterinarian to be recognized by the county requirements. By giving the vaccine yourself, you are leaving yourself open for legal issues should your pet ever bite someone or be exposed to a rabid animal.

Q: Is the plague something I need to worry about for myself and my pets as I have read that prairie dogs around Flagstaff have been known to carry it?

A: The plague that you are referring to is the bubonic plague that evokes images of the devastation that it wrecked across Europe during the Middle Ages.

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The bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis that is carried around in fleas. It is transmitted when the infected flea jumps onto an animal and introduces the bacterium into the blood stream of that animal.

The disease itself can present in numerous ways but the most classic presentation is with abscessation of the lymph nodes under the jaw, and it can also cause severe breathing issues in its pneumonic form.

The good news is that, unlike in the Middle ages, we have antibiotics that we can use to treat the plague and, typically, it is not fatal with aggressive therapy.

Unfortunately, the fleas that are associated with prairie dogs also can carry the Yersinia pestis bacterium and they are the source of the disease. Prairie dogs that contract the disease tend to succumb to it very quickly deep within their burrows. This disease is always around but seems to become newsworthy around springtime and summer when the prairie dogs are more active and might have more exposure to your pets.

Luckily, if you live in an area where your pet might encounter a prairie dog colony, you can effectively protect your pet against the plague by simply providing your pet with a good flea preventative product.

I recommend asking your veterinarian for their recommendations for good flea and tick preventative as not all products are made the same and some are more effective than others at protecting your pet.

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

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