Recent canine distemper outbreak calls for more vaccination

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COLUMBIA — In late October, an outbreak of canine distemper forced a St. Louis animal shelter to euthanize 17 dogs. Mid-Missouri pet owners need to continue to vaccinate their dogs to prevent a similar situation from hitting closer to home.

“Canine distemper floats through the air,Richard Meadows, a curators teaching professor at the MU Veterinary Health Center said. “An outbreak can spread in a big hurry.”

Canine distemper is a virus that damages the brain and is spread through the air or by interaction with an infected animal. The disease is almost certain death for infected canines, but it’s not transmissible to humans. There is a solution, however.

“There’ s a very effective vaccine for it…  It is excellent. It is safe. It works.”

Meadows explained that to keep a population of dogs healthy and outbreaks limited, “herd immunity” is needed. Herd immunity is where a minimum of 70 percent of the population is vaccinated for that virus. KOMU 8 News was unable to find any statistics on the percentage of dogs vaccinated in Missouri. Meadows said the majority of dogs he has seen are well taken care of, but continued care across the region is a must.

“If you get cavalier about a terribly debilitating disease... you can pay a price for that. Society can pay a price for that.”

MU student Hannah Phillips and her dog Nala have already learned that lesson. Nala was a rescue dog but suffered from parvo when she was adopted. Parvo is another significantly fatal disease that causes bloody diarrhea and fever among other symptoms.

“The vet gave her three shots the last trip,” Phillips said. “In three weeks she has to get booster shots.”

Nala is healthy now, but rescue dogs sick with parvo or canine distemper reflect a real concern of local shelter officials.

“It’s definitely scary for any rescue or work shelter.” Central Missouri Humane Society Assistant Director Michelle Casey said. “We vaccinate all of our animals coming to the shelter on intake.”

Casey explained the staff veterinarian examines the Humane Society’s animals on a daily basis and quarantines any animals that show signs of illness.

The only animals not vaccinated immediately are pregnant mothers in order to protect the unborn puppies. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in early November the staff at the distemper outbreak shelter believed an infected mother may have brought the distemper with her.

Central Missouri Humane Society Veterinarian Russell Ehlmann said the shelter avoids that scenario by immediately placing pregnant mothers in foster care.

“Once they have their puppies… then we go ahead and vaccinate the mom,” Ehlmann said. The shelter vaccinates the puppies when they are old enough.

Age is an important factor in keeping young dogs healthy. Meadows recommended talking to a veterinarian before taking a young dog out and letting it interact with other possibly sick dogs. Additionally, he recommends making sure vaccinations are up to date once a year.

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