Puppy buyers are constantly reminded to look for clean conditions when considering the source of that new family pet. Whether looking at puppies at a breeder's kennel, a shelter, a pet store, or
in the neighbor's garage, the puppy and his living area should be clean. This caution is not merely a matter of housekeeping, it is a matter of life and death for the puppy and potential heartbreak
for the owner.
Distemper and parvovirus thrive in dirty conditions. These viruses can strike in a matter of hours, especially if the litter was born to an unvaccinated mother and the pups are stressed by intestinal parasites, poor nutrition, temperature extremes, or shipping.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, distemper is the 'greatest single disease threat to the world's dog population. Better than 50 percent of the adult dogs that contract the disease die from it. Among puppies, the death rate from distemper often reaches 80 percent.'
Distemper affects other animals as well; raccoons, coyotes, wolves, foxes, ferrets, skunks, weasels, mink, badgers, hyenas, and jackals can also catch the disease and a population of lions in Africa has been decimated by it.
The virus is spread through secretions in saliva, respiratory passages, urine, and feces and by inhalation of airborne droplets from sneezes and coughs. There is a difference of opinion about the longevity of the virus in the environment, with some sources saying it does not survive for extended periods and others saying that the virus can survive freezing in winter. Whether it is long-lived or not, there's no doubt that distemper is widespread and potentially deadly.
The most common victim is an unvaccinated pup between the ages of three months and eight months. However, older dogs can contract the disease as well if they have not been vaccinated or if their immunity is incomplete.
About half of infected dogs ' those with strong immune systems ' show little or no symptoms of the disease. In other dogs, the illness is mild. In those dogs with compromised immune symptoms, the disease and its secondary infections can be serious or even fatal.
Distemper may be misdiagnosed in its early stages because it begins as an upper respiratory infection resembling a cold., including fever of 103-105 degrees (normal for a dog is 100-102.5), loss of appetite, listlessness, and a watery discharge from eyes and nose.
But dogs do not get colds like people do, so if these symptoms arise with a puppy, call the veterinary clinic immediately.
Within a few days, the discharge turns yellow and becomes thick and sticky and the pup has a dry cough, and may have diarrhea and vomiting. Within the first two weeks of the disease, the symptoms fluctuate.
Some dogs shake off the disease after this stage, but others progress into pneumonia and neurological involvement. Seizures, encephalitis, partial paralysis, head-tilting, chorea (jerking or twitching) and other neurological signs can follow. Some dogs also experience a hardening of the nose leather and the footpads. Even if the initial disease has been mild, these symptoms can show up weeks later.
The virus can also persist in the system, attacking the spleen, thymus gland and lymph nodes of the immune system and creating immune deficiencies that allow bacterial infections to gain hold.
Distemper treatment & prevention
Treatment consists of fluids to prevent dehydration, antibiotics to treat or prevent secondary infection, drugs to stop diarrhea and vomiting, and anti-convulsants and sedatives to control seizures.
Prevention is better. There are vaccines for puppies and adult dogs that provide immunity to the disease. Most veterinarians and breeders recommend a course of vaccinations for puppies to build immunity as the mother's antibodies diminish in the puppy's body. Boosters are also recommended, although a yearly booster is probably not necessary according to the latest research.
In the late 1970s, a previously unknown rapid-onset, deadly virus began attacking canine digestive systems with great fury, often killing puppies in 48 hours. Spread through contact with infected feces, the long-lived virus attacked rapidly reproducing cells such as those lining the gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and heart.
Researchers identified the disease as a canine parvovirus, CPV-2, perhaps a mutation of feline panleukopenia or a parvovirus that affects wildlife. CPV-2 also infects coyotes and other canids.
Canine parvovirus survives in the environment for five months or more and clings to shoes, floors, beds, and other surfaces where it can infect the next unprotected puppy to enter the house. It is resistant to most household cleansers but can be killed by bleach.
Parvovirus can decimate a litter, a kennel, a shelter, a pet store once it gets hold. Kennels that experience the disease often close their doors until they bleach every surface, towel, and dog bed.
Parvovirus symptoms and treatment
Parvovirus incubates for seven to 14 days. Initial signs of illness are lethargy, loss of appetite, and vomiting, followed within 24 hours by high fever (up to 106 degrees) and profuse, often bloody diarrhea. The dog's abdomen is tucked up and he appears to be in extreme pain. Some puppies show only the first stage of depression and abdominal pain, then go into shock and die.
Parvovirus can also attack the rapidly-growing myocardial (muscle) cells of the heart in puppies born to a bitch who is not vaccinated against the disease. Those puppies that survive this form of the disease often have heart problems and die young.
There are several available tests to determine if parvovirus is the disease-causing agent, but treatment with fluids and antibiotics should commence while waiting for the test results. Puppies with bloody diarrhea are in danger from loss of fluids and electrolytes; they must be rehydrated and given antibiotics to prevent secondary infections such as pneumonia and septicemia.
Food and water should be withheld until the puppy's system begins to overcome the disease. Small amounts of a bland diet of cottage cheese and rice or a prescription diet can be offered once the diarrhea and vomiting have subsided.
As with distemper, parvovirus is best prevented by vaccination. However, because there can be a gap between the gradual decline in residual immunity from mother's milk and the pup's ability to respond to the vaccination, some vaccinated puppies may still get the disease. Therefore, cleanliness of the kennel facilities is imperative, especially in kennels with lots of litters and shelters or pet stores that constantly receive new dogs. Kennel runs and puppy cages should be cleaned of organic matter and then bleached before new animals are brought in. Adjacent runs should be bleached if they are contaminated by flowing water during the hosing.
Although it is not as serious in adults as in puppies, parvovirus can attack adult dogs. Therefore booster vaccinations are also recommended, although they may not be necessary every year for pet dogs not exposed to unvaccinated animals or their feces.