This week, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a veterinary alert about canine distemper virus infections in Central Park raccoons and both Fox 5 News and ABC 7 News visited Animal Medical Center to talk about the story.
An alert from the Health Department about sick raccoons dying from a dog virus may seem a bit outside their normal purview, but the alert is important to dog families and humans alike.
What is Distemper?
Although named canine distemper virus, this virus can affect a wide number of species, hence the sick raccoons in Central Park. Canine distemper occurs worldwide, especially in regions of the world where vaccination is uncommon. Veterinarians in the United States rarely diagnose canine distemper since the vaccine is very effective. In the United States, stray dogs are those most likely to be unvaccinated and ultimately diagnosed with canine distemper.
Recognizing Canine Distemper
Canine distemper virus infection has a wide range of clinical signs. Early in the disease, dogs have runny noses and red eyes, with some vomiting and diarrhea. Severe cases may develop pneumonia. As the disease progresses, dogs and raccoons exhibit neurologic signs like paralysis, twitching, and a wobbly gait. A strange type of seizure called a “chewing gum” fit is common. Some dogs appear to recover from distemper only to develop neurologic signs months to years later. This syndrome is called old dog encephalitis.
Why Are Officials Concerned?
Because distemper has a wide range of clinical signs, this disease can resemble other important infections, most notably rabies. The rabies virus circulates in NYC in cats, raccoons, and this week in a fox.
Both rabies and canine distemper can cause neurologic signs, making it difficult to differentiate the two diseases without specialized testing. New York City has recently experienced a dog flu outbreak.
To further complicate the picture, early distemper may resemble canine influenza and also “kennel cough.”
Protecting Your Dog
Veterinarians consider distemper vaccine a “core” vaccine. Core vaccines are those veterinarians recommend for every dog. Current best practice for distemper vaccination is a series of puppy shots, a booster around one year of age, and then triennial boosters. Check with your veterinarian to confirm your dog is up to date on his distemper vaccine. Distemper virus is transmitted via bodily fluids from an infected animal. If you are walking your dog, avoid contact with raccoons and consider keeping your dog on-leash to prevent him from coming in contact with urine or feces from an infected raccoon or the remains of a deceased raccoon.