Distemper, Parvovirus and the Importance of Vaccination

With a recent case of distemper virus at the Edmonton Humane Society and a case of parvovirus at our clinic one week ago, this is a good reminder of why we vaccinate our pets. Both viruses are very hardy and survive our Edmonton winters.

Dogs are exposed to distemper through aerosol exposure or urine, feces or skin contact. Distemper virus causes a range of signs, from mild to severe.  It attacks the cells in the intestines, causing vomiting and diarrhea; invades the respiratory tissues causing pneumonia and can invade the brain causing neurological signs. Parvovirus attacks the intestines cells as well, causing vomiting and diarrhea, often bloody. It also attacks the bone marrow, causing a decrease in the white blood cell count, leaving the pet vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections.

Puppies are the most susceptible to these viruses and can become very ill when exposed to them. There are specific tests that can be done to diagnose parvovirus and distemper virus. Treatment for parvovirus involves hospitalization for 3-7 days, intravenous fluids, anti-nausea and anti-vomiting medications, anti-diarrheal medications, repeat blood testing to check electrolytes and white blood cell counts and in some cases, a plasma transfusion. Prognosis is good with correct treatment with a success rate of 93-95% reported.

With distemper virus, if there are signs of vomiting, diarrhea and pneumonia, this can be treated with intravenous fluids, anti-vomiting/anti-diarrheal medications and antibiotics. If neurological symptoms develop, this is very difficult to treat, and dogs can die or are euthanized due to severe, uncontrollable seizures.

The best protection for these viruses is through vaccination. Puppies are vaccinated starting at eight weeks old, as the immunity they receive from their mother through the breast milk is waning. They need three vaccinations at eight weeks, 12 weeks and 16 weeks to be adequately protected from these viruses. Then a booster at 1.5 years, then every three years after that.  

Written by Lori Skrypnek DVM