AHS issues pet health alert for new strains of deadly distemper virus

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- The Arizona Humane Society generally sees more cases of canine distemper in Valley pets in the spring, but this year occurrences are not only showing up earlier in several states, there also could be new strains of the potentially deadly disease. Because of that, the Arizona Humane Society is issuing a Valleywide pet health alert.

The AHS put out a similar alert last April to coincide with puppy season. More litters of puppies are born in the spring, which usually accounts for the increase in distemper cases.

This year, however, there could be more to worry about. Signs of the often-fatal disease have already shown up as far away as Florida, Ohio and Georgia.

To make matters worse, two new strains of the disease indigenous to Europe have shown up in the U.S.

The normal incubation period for distemper, which is a relative of measles, is between one and two weeks. That window for infection could be even larger with the European strains.

While distemper usually affects puppies that have not had all of their shots, the virus is showing up in older dogs with unconfirmed vaccination histories, according to the AHS.

Any unvaccinated dog can contract the virus, but puppies between 3 and 6 months old are generally the most susceptible.

The canine distemper virus is a whole-body disease. The virus is in bodily secretions and spread via inhalation. Once inhaled, the virus moves to the lymph nodes and then to the blood, spreading to the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital and central nervous systems.

While symptoms vary from dog to dog, discharge from eyes/nose, coughing, lethargy, lack of appetite, callusing of nose/foot pads, vomiting, diarrhea and seizures can often be signs of distemper. The eye discharge, which can easily be mistaken for a simple cold, is often the first sign of a potential problem.

There is no treatment or cure for distemper. Vets simply try to deal with the symptoms and prevent secondary infections as best they can.

The key, vets say, is prevention.

The Arizona Humane Society vaccinates every single one of the adoptable animals in its care and urges pet owners to follow suit.

"Distemper, just as the equally fatal parvovirus, is a community problem," reads the AHS pet health alert. "Therefore, people must be very careful when taking their pets to communal areas such as dog parks or other public areas with unknown dogs."

The best thing you can do to protect your dog is keep its vaccinations up to date.

If you think your dog might have distemper, you need to isolate it from other pets immediately and get it to the vet as soon as possible. If your dog is diagnosed with distemper, you will need to thoroughly clean and disinfect your home to protect other animals.

The AHS has low-cost vaccination clinics at both its Sunnyslope and South Mountain facilities. The walk-in vaccination clinics are open every Friday, 8 a.m.-noon and 1 p.m.-5 p.m., and are run on a first-come, first-served basis. You can also make appointments Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Vaccinations are $19 each.

Nina Mason Pulliam Campus for Compassion (Margaret McAllister Brock Clinic)
1521 W. Dobbins Road
Phoenix, AZ 85041

Sunnyslope Facility (Marge Wright Clinic)
1311 W. Hatcher Road
Phoenix, AZ 85021