On July 23rd, the NYC Dept of Health issued an alert to veterinarians that 20 Central Park raccoons tested positive for the distemper virus.


Distemper: Highly Infectious and Long Lived In The Environment


Distemper is a highly contagious, often fatal disease common in dogs, foxes, raccoons, ferrets, and minks. The causative agent, a virus related to human measles, is transmitted through the saliva, feces, respiratory discharge, and urine of infected animals.  Animals that survive the disease can shed the virus for months after recovering.


Outbreaks of Distemper In Wild Typically Signal Outbreaks in Domestic Dogs


Outbreaks of distemper in the wild, typically signal outbreaks of distemper in domesticated dog populations.  According to the American Animal Hospital Association, “Canine Distemper outbreaks in local raccoon populations can signal increased risk for pet dogs in the area.”  In a study conducted in Denmark, research pointed to reservoirs of the disease in wild fox populations as responsible for outbreaks of the disease in adjacent mink farms.  Though transmission of the disease occurs vertically in populations as it passes from mothers to their babies through the placenta, the majority of transmission happens laterally from species to species through viral shedding in the environment.  The Danish study even pointed to fleas as a possible vector for lateral transmission.


Symptoms of Distemper In Dogs


Dogs infected with distemper exhibit a variety of symptoms, the most common of which is coughing with discharge from the eyes and nose, but the disease is almost always associated with more severe symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, lack of appetite, fever, and neurological signs that can cause the patient to circle, masticate, and briefly paralyze.  It is hard to distinguish between neurological signs caused by distemper and those caused by rabies, so you should be especially cautious of any animal that is behaving abnormally.  Approximately 80% of puppies that contract distemper die.  Mortality rates in adult dogs is probably less than 50%, but still high when compared to other canine illnesses.  The disease is almost 100% fatal in ferrets.  if you own a ferret, it is extremely important to regularly vaccinate him or her against distemper.  Please call us at least 2 weeks prior to your visit so that we can make sure we have the vaccine on hand.  We cannot give the canine distemper vaccine to ferrets – same disease, different vaccine-  we need to time to order the right one for you.


Can My Cat Get Canine Distemper?


No. Cat owners need not be alarmed by the Central Park outbreak.  The virus that causes canine distemper is not the same as the one that causes feline distemper, but it is interesting to point out that some canine distemper outbreaks in the wild have been linked to outbreaks at proximal zoo populations of tigers and lions.


Can People Get Distemper From Raccoons?


No, but there are at least two other illnesses that you can contract from contact with raccoons, rabies and leptospirosis, both of which are found frequently in our area’s raccoon populations.  You and/or your dog/cat should not have physical contact with raccoons, possums, skunks, rats, bats, foxes, or weasels. It’s not too uncommon for people to find sick wildlife and then bring it to us for treatment, but touching wildlife puts you and your pets at risk.  Leptospirosis and rabies can be passed to both you and your pet from touching, and in the case of distemper, you can be the vector of the disease to your dog by carrying the infection on your hands or clothes.


All Area Dogs Should Be Vaccinated Against Distemper


You have probably never seen a dog with distemper, but that’s less a statement about the disease’s prevalence in the wild as it is a testament to the distemper vaccine’s efficacy and safety.  Distemper vaccines are highly effective at protecting dogs and all canine pets should be vaccinated unless one of the vets here at Animal Medical recommends otherwise.


Distemper Vaccination Protocol for Puppies and Adult Dogs


Puppies should be vaccinated against distemper at 8, 10 and 12 weeks of age.  Adult dogs require the vaccination annually or once every three years depending on the vaccine.  The vaccine typically includes protection against two other highly infectious diseases, parainfluenza and parvo virus.  Some distemper vaccines also include protection against leptospirosis, another serious disease that is often transmitted by area raccoons and rats.