Distemper dangerous to your cat or dog

Distemper dangerous to your cat or dog

Imagine you stepped out of your house one evening to go for a walk and was confronted by an obviously sick, disoriented raccoon. What would you think? Rabies would come to mind, most likely. And you could be right because all of Sonoma County is considered a rabies endemic area. More importantly, would you know what to do?

A couple weeks ago Rohnert Park dispatch got a call about a rabid raccoon in front of someone’s home in the E section. As rabies is a threat to humans, the call was taken seriously, but because it was after hours and beyond the scope of our usual calls, we turned to Sonoma Wildlife Rescue for assistance. Advice from the wildlife experts is that you should never attempt to catch a sick wild animal yourself. If you can contain it in some way that can be helpful; but you should never attempt to catch, or even touch, a sick raccoon or opossum. Don’t offer it food either, although if it’s that sick it probably won’t eat anyway. Just call for help as soon as possible.

Turns out this critter didn’t have rabies (whew!) but had distemper, which has very similar symptoms. Raccoons are special because they can catch and carry both canine and feline distemper. Although those two have the same name, they are very different viruses and can exhibit different symptoms. These viruses are not transmittable to humans but can definitely infect our pets. Distemper can spread through direct or even indirect contact with the saliva and nasal discharge of infected animals.

Canine distemper is the one most often mistaken for rabies because the animal can appear disoriented and will have a discharge coming from the eyes and nose (hence appearing to be frothing around the mouth). Distemper begins with upper respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes and fever. It progresses to the gastrointestinal system causing vomiting and diarrhea and then can go into the nervous system causing fits, seizures and paralysis. Distemper has no cure, so treatment (for dogs and cats) is mostly supportive therapies and focused on relieving symptoms.

In cats, distemper first attacks the blood cells compromising the immune system and leaving the kitten vulnerable to other viruses. It then affects the gastrointestinal system, causing vomiting and diarrhea leading to dehydration. The cat might then show signs of seizures looking similar to the canine version but the two are distinct diseases and not transmittable between species (your dog won’t get distemper from your cat and vice versa). However, feline distemper can survive in the environment for a very long time.

Unvaccinated and young animals are most at risk, so if your dogs and cats go outdoors and are not up-to-date on their vaccinations (current recommendation is every three years), now would be a good time to make an appointment with your veterinarian. We now know we have distemper in our raccoon population, and who knows how far that animal travelled shedding the virus before he ended up at the house in E section!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *