Monday, April 18, 2016

That Distemperment Shot

You don't have to be in practice very long before you have someone come in with an out of control puppy, expressing relief that the puppy is about to get his "distemperment shot".
"He's getting that distemperment shot today, right doc? I can't wait until he settles down..."
"Um... yeah..."

To be fair it is an odd and confusing name. Its origins reach back to before the advent of modern medicine. Before the mid 19th century the prevailing theory was that good health resulted from a balance between the four "humors", also called "tempers": blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. You can still see it in the language today - melancholy is Greek for black bile and indeed depressed people were thought to suffer from an imbalance of the humors with an excess of black bile. (For the record, actual bile is a greenish yellow, but you probably already knew that.) Dogs stricken with distemper were so profoundly ill and could potentially spew phlegm, bile and blood (in the stool), so they were though to be dis-tempered.

And what is it actually? Distemper is a disease caused by a virus that is related to the human measles virus, although the symptoms are very different. Dogs with distemper often have a constellation of symptoms including fever, heavy nasal discharge, breathing difficulties, vomiting, diarrhea, blindness and eventually nervous system symptoms up to and including seizures in some cases. It is spread through the discharge from a sick dog. The incubation period is up to about five days between exposure and first symptoms. There is no specific treatment, only supportive care which often has to be quite intensive to prevent the patient from succumbing and even so, about half of infected dogs will die.

Confusingly, "feline distemper", more correctly called panleukopenia, is not related to canine distemper. It is in fact a close cousin of canine parvo virus.

Incidentally though, canine distemper can also spread to wildlife. Foxes, coyotes and wolves are definitely susceptible and a mutated form has spread to seals as well where it has devastated some populations. Oddly, some marsupials are also vulnerable and distemper is theorized to have played a role in the extinction of the magnificent Tasmanian Tiger (also called the Thylacine).

That's all the bad news, but the good news is that the vaccines are extremely effective and safe. Consequently distemper is now very rare in areas where vaccination is common, such as here in the city. When we do see cases it is usually in puppies from remote communities. In the Arctic and in isolated First Nations communities it is still rampant.

Actually, I lied. That wasn't all the bad news. There is a worrying trend among some pet owners to refuse vaccination. How often to booster is a subject of some legitimate debate, but not to vaccinate at all is foolhardy (to be polite). It is still a small minority and fortunately their pets are protected by the fact that the majority of their neighbours are more sensible and responsible, so the virus cannot yet gain a foothold, but this could change. On the humans side whooping cough outbreaks are beginning to become more frequent in areas where vaccination rates are dropping. Whooping cough is sometimes fatal in babies.

Distemper is not just sometimes fatal.

And training is the remedy for "distemperment". Now, if we had a shot for that...

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