Do you worry about distemper and rabies? Probably not. To many pet owners, these diseases seem very "last century" when it comes to things to worry about. But you can't relegate these illnesses to the history books, not yet — and maybe not ever. For veterinarians, distemper and rabies never stop being a concern, because while they may seem to be diseases from the past, they are anything but. Exposure can be lethal for your pet — and, in the case of rabies, for you too.
I was recently talking with Dr. Kate Hurley of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, one of the pioneers of shelter medicine, a challenging field that’s changing the way shelter pets are treated. Dr. Hurley brought to my mind something that’s true in human medicine as well as veterinary medicine: We all have a tendancy to focus on new and emerging challenges to our health, often to the point of neglecting or even ignoring maladies that are, for the most part, completely preventable.
We do so, of course, at great risk.
Gone — but Not Necessarily Forever
Which brings me back to distemper and rabies. Dr. Hurley often gets asked about canine influenza, a justifiably scary disease discovered a few years ago among Florida’s racing greyhound population and one that is now a concern primarily along the Eastern Seaboard and in Texas and Colorado. Where canine influenza is a problem — and you should ask your veterinarian about it — there’s a vaccine that’s recommended.
But while Dr. Hurley is happy that people care enough to ask about canine influenza, she told me that she worries people take for granted an old threat that still claims many canine lives: distemper.
Distemper is a hardy enemy, and that makes it a dangerous one. The virus is long-lived, and it’s everywhere. For an unvaccinated puppy or dog, shelters, dog parks and pet stores can be breeding grounds for a disease that causes great suffering, and for many, death. Unvaccinated cats are also at risk for feline distemper, known as panleukopenia virus, which can also be fatal.
Prevention is so easy that we take it for granted: vaccination, as recommended by your veterinarian. But Dr. Hurley says there’s more that you can do. When you adopt a shelter dog or cat — and she and I both recommend you do, with no hesitation — don’t expose other pets to whatever diseases yours may be shedding. Even if your pet seems healthy, wait a couple of weeks before you head to the dog park or any other place your dog or cat is likely to come into contact with other pets.
Such good advice, and so simple, it will save many lives if we all follow it. Distemper will likely always be with us, but we can keep it from killing, if we just don’t take it for granted.
Protecting Pets and People
And that goes double for rabies, and then some. While distemper is deadly to dogs and cats, rabies is a terrifying killer of countless species, including our own. It’s so serious that people who work around animals — such as veterinarians and veterinary technicians — are vaccinated against rabies as a precaution. What makes rabies so frightening is that unless it’s caught early — which too often, it’s not — it’s deadly.
We veterinarians take it seriously (after all, we are sometime bitten by animals whose health status is unknown), and so does the law. Many decades of vigorous public health efforts have made human deaths from rabies in the United States a rare event. The veterinary profession’s role in keeping it that way is one we’re proud of, and determined to maintain in the future.
Distemper and rabies were once spoken of in the same fearful tones as malaria and cholera, and all these “old-fashioned” diseases bide their time, hoping to catch us with our guard down.
Don’t let them. Talk to your veterinarian about the vaccines and other preventive care your pet needs to protect his health — and your own. If it doesn’t seem like a big deal, think about what it was like when it was. And do your part to help your veterinarian help keep everyone healthy.