Distemper is a highly contagious, fatal disease which has gained an increased presence in the Yucatan Península affecting our pets and wild animals.
Incidents of canine distemper are on the rise. We spoke to Dr. Oscar Galindo Zavala about this fatal disease.
“I have seen a great increase in distemper cases in Playa del Carmen in the last year, and my guess is it’s due to an increase in a human population without a vaccination culture, as well as the illegal sale of animals, and an increase of stray animals, among many others.”
This disease is caused by a virus (morbillivirus) and can infect dogs, wild canine, ferrets, raccoons, wolves, large felines, and other wild animals. The virus is transmitted by inhaling the viral particles contained in a sick animal’s secretions.
Once an animal is infected, the virus spreads and multiplies in the organs and tissues, mainly affecting the respiratory, integumentary, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. 10 to 15 days post infection, symptoms will vary depending on the animal’s immune system. Young animals or those with a weak immune response develop signs of severe viral infection. The organs will be affected; signs include diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, skin problems and green mucus. Animals may die in the very early stages or survive, only to later develop severe neurological problems, including seizures or paralysis, and eventually, die.
Pets with a moderate immune system are difficult to diagnose. They may present mild to moderate clinical signs, and symptoms may resemble other non-life-threatening illnesses. In this case, the vet must evaluate clinical history, vaccination records, as well as the possibility of contact with the virus. A blood cell count and quick test for distemper will be performed. Typically patients who begin coughing will show gastrointestinal issues, progress to skin problems and eventually they may or may not develop neurological signs.
Animals with a healthy immune system will rarely present systematic evidence of the disease. This group stands a better chance of not developing neurological issues and may only show mild myoclonus or tics or nothing at all and will live a normal life.¨
What determines the severity?
The patient’s age, immune system, and most importantly, the virus strain that infected the body. Some strains prefer tegumentary, respiratory or gastrointestinal tissues. Others prefer neurological tissues or all of the above.
Neurological signs might appear after weeks or months of systemic infection, from mild myoclonus or tics to severe seizures or paralysis. They may even incapacitate or cause death. In this stage, owners should be ready to make a quality of life decision.
If my pet has distemper, why are the quick test results negative?
The virus is in body secretions during the systemic stage. In some cases, when the neurological phase starts, the viruses in the secretions disappear and therefore test negative. There are advanced techniques to detect the virus after the systemic stage, but these are not always easily available. The diagnosis must be made by a vet.
What is the treatment?
Support therapy, as well as immune system stimulation. Some animals will require intravenous fluids and fever control. There is no definite cure for this virus. Once severe neurological signs appear, treatment is no longer recommended because of severe disabilities and low quality of life.
What are the current treatments and can neurological damage be prevented?
Immune system stimulants are available such as interferons, lymphocytic stem cell stimulants, hyperimmune serums among others. All of these are focused on improving the body’s immune defenses and therefore eliminate the virus before it reaches the nervous system.
Dr. Oscar warns that if the virus is a strong neurotrophic strain (high preference for nerve tissue), it will reach the nervous system despite our efforts. The medications are most effective on low neurotropic virus strains and affected by immune system and age. The ultimate weapon is vaccination. Do not follow the anti-vaccine trend! Vaccines save lives.
Dr. Oscar is a veterinarian servicing the Playa del Carmen area, available for house calls and office consultations.