Yesterday afternoon, one of our AVMA Facebook page friends posed an intriguing question:
Does the AVMA have any insight as to what is happening with the Distemper virus strains that are hitting the news media? Clients where I work are asking questions, and I’ve been researching but just coming up with OSU doing research at this point. Thank you!
Can you say, “Huh?” Hmm, I thought…I’m not aware of any new canine distemper virus (CDV) strains causing problems, but maybe I’ve missed something. Sure enough, thanks to all-knowing, all-seeing Google, I found online news reports of “2 new strains of distemper.” Being the skeptical person that I am, I wasn’t about to take these articles at face value, so I went to the experts to get the facts on this rumor.
Enter Dr. Ed Dubovi from the Cornell Animal Health Diagnostic Center, and Dr. Ron Schultz from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiological Sciences. They’re both very highly respected for their knowledge on a number of topics, including canine distemper. I spoke at length with both of them about the new strain rumor, and here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: it’s bunk.
OK, so maybe you want a little more explanation.
Yes, we’re seeing a lot of media reports about distemper being “on the rise.” The truth is we don’t have the data to back up claims that the disease is on the rise on a national level, but there have been many outbreaks of distemper covered in the news media. Periodic distemper outbreaks are observed in wild animals – particularly skunks and raccoons, and researchers and officials are investigating a recent outbreak of distemper in desert kit foxes. Animal shelters in Florida, California and Texas seem to be constantly having outbreaks, as do shelters in many other states, and that’s probably due to a combination of warmer temperatures (that favor the virus) as well as a lack of adequate vaccination in the lower-income areas the affected shelters serve. Dr. Schultz has found during the past 10 years that many of the larger city shelters have approximately 40 to 50% of dogs entering the shelter are antibody negative for CDV, meaning they’ve never been exposed to the virus (either by vaccination or by exposure to an infected animal) and are thus susceptible. We have better testing methods now, which make it easier to detect the virus, so veterinarians may be seeing the same number of cases they’ve seen in the past, but are better able to confirm the diagnosis. Combine all of this with the insatiable 24/7 news media and the near-instantaneous spread of information and rumors via Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and you’ve suddenly got panic-stricken pet owners rapid-firing questions at their veterinarians. Most veterinarians have not seen a case of CDV in their vaccinated canine patients.
Genetic studies of the canine distemper viruses in the U.S. may show strains that were previously undetected here, but it’s almost impossible to determine if these strains are newly arrived or just newly detected because of improvements in testing. Also, a genetic change in the virus doesn’t necessarily change the virus enough to impact our pet’s health. Regardless of whether or not there are new strains in the U.S., there is no scientific evidence that the currently available vaccines won’t protect your pets. Or, to avoid a double negative and make it more clear, the currently available distemper vaccines are highly effective and will protect your pet in all but rare circumstances – remember, nothing is 100% when you’re dealing with living beings. Dr. Schultz estimates that 1 out of every 5,000 dogs is incapable of developing an immune response to the canine distemper virus, so there is a low risk of disease despite vaccination, but that risk is nothing compared to the likelihood that your dog will become ill if it’s not vaccinated at all.
The REAL issue here isn’t a scare over “new” distemper strains or a national outbreak: it’s that there are unvaccinated (or inadequately vaccinated) and unprotected pets at high risk of developing a very deadly, yet PREVENTABLE, disease. Distemper is one of the “core” vaccines for dogs, which means that every dog should be adequately vaccinated against distemper. (FYI, parvo, adenovirus and rabies are also core vaccines, and it’s critical to vaccinate your dog against them as well.) For more information on vaccinations, check out the American Animal Hospital Association’s Canine Vaccine Guidelines.
Believe me, we’ll tell you when it’s time to panic over an animal disease outbreak…but this ain’t it. Talk to your veterinarian to make sure your dog is adequately vaccinated for canine distemper, parvovirus, adenovirus and rabies, the 4 core vaccines that every dog should receive. There’s no question that these disease are the perfect example of the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”