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Veterinarian Jerry Crownover stresses the importance of vaccinating puppies to protect against the canine distemper virus. Distemper commonly affects wild carnivorous, animals such as raccoons and coyotes and can be caught by an unvaccinated dog. Distemper can mimic the symptoms of rabies and there is no cure for the virus.

In Tennessee, they go by a variety of names. Whether you refer to them as varmints or trash pandas, raccoons aren’t always the cute, cuddly creatures the internet portrays them to be. In fact, raccoons could pose quite the threat to beloved family pets.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency cautions that canine distemper can break out in raccoons and other carnivorous animals including foxes, coyotes, skunks and weasels. If one of these animals becomes infected with distemper and comes into contact with an unvaccinated dog, the dog could contract the virus.

Canine distemper virus is very contagious, and it infects the respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. While the virus could be deadly to pets, it is preventable.

“Distemper is preventable by vaccination,” said Tullahoma veterinarian Jerry Crownover. “However, if a pet owner chooses not to vaccinate and a pet becomes sick with the distemper virus, it’s usually deadly. If a dog survives, it will suffer from seizures for the rest of its life.”

The canine distemper virus is closely related to the measles virus in humans, according to Crownover. It is highly concentrated in the respiratory tract, and it is found in other body fluids such as urine, salvia and blood. It’s commonly spread through the air, and the virus really thrives in a cold, freezing environment.

“Distemper occurs all across the state and outbreaks occur when numbers of raccoons, coyotes and other carnivores become dense,” said TWRA Furbearer, Small Game and Wildlife Health Program Leader Roger Applegate. “The virus that causes distemper is spread by direct contact so that high populations of animals will contract it.”

The signs of distemper closely relate those of rabies. Symptoms can be mild or severe depending on how well the dog’s immune system is able to fight the virus. Puppies are more likely to develop severe symptoms than an unvaccinated adult dog, due to the development and strength of their immune system.

“If a dog gets distemper, it can be easily mistaken for rabies,” said Crownover. “Early signs could consist of wheezing, snotty noses and coughing. As things progress, dogs can have crusted-over eyes, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. Once the nervous system is affected the dogs will show mental dullness, unresponsiveness, disorientation, blindness, imbalance and seizures.”

While the virus is preventable by vaccinating puppies at six weeks, nine weeks, 12 and 16 weeks, there is no cure for the virus itself once it is contracted.

“Dogs are particularly vulnerable if they are housed outdoors, fed outdoors, and most importantly, unvaccinated.” said Applegate. “For people, there is no risk, but your dog needs to be vaccinated and preferably housed and fed indoors. A licensed veterinarian can provide the vaccine.”

In order to diagnose the canine distemper virus, a series of diagnostic tests must be run in order to distinguish distemper from rabies. Blood cell counts,   spinal taps, urine samples and even an MRI to show abnormalities in the brain of the dog after contracting the virus are just a few options that may be used to correctly diagnose the distemper virus in an infected animal.

“You can’t usually tell the difference between distemper and rabies,” Applegate said. “You need a lab test that isolates and types out the virus.”

The best way to prevent against the virus is to vaccinate your dog. Because raccoons are common in the region, there is always the possibility that a pet could come in contact with an infected raccoon or the bodily fluids left behind after a raccoon raids the garbage. Diagnosing a dog after it contracts the virus is a very expensive process, and it could more than likely result in the loss the pet.

Applegate warned the public to stay away from raccoons or other wild animals that are acting strangely with neurological signs, weak and seeming unusually tame as making the distinction between rabies and distemper is difficult. While distemper is not contagious to humans, rabies is. It is better to be safe and stay away than sorry, he said.

For more information on rabies visit www.cdc.gov/rabies. For more information on the TWRA, visit www.tn.gov/twra.

For more information on the canine distemper virus and to set up an appointment for vaccination, call Crownover Animal Clinic at 931-455-6886 or call your preferred veterinarian.

Faith Few can be reached by email at ffew@tullahomanews.com.