Pet owners warned about deadly outbreak

March 25, 2009 3:59:01 PM PDT
Local veterinarians are sounding an alarm that dog owners should hear. They're seeing an increase in cases of distemper. It's an infectious disease that can have tragic consequences for your pet. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

There are more opportunities than ever before for pets to socialize -- dog parks are only one example. But how much do you know about the dog your pet is playing with? That's the question veterinarians are asking owners.

Brenda Flores, DVM, Westbury Animal Clinic, said, "if dogs are socializing with other dogs that haven't been vaccinated, then they're exposing themselves to all kinds of things."

Dr. Flores sees a distemper case a month in her private practice and for her that seems high. But it pales compared to what animal shelters that deal in stray and injured dogs have been seeing in the past month. At the Houston SPCA, as many as three animals arrive a day that have signs of distemper and have to be euthanized.

Teri Schweiss, DVM, Houston SPCA, said, "We've had a few that, during their stray hold, develop symptoms of distemper. So it's out there in the environment right now pretty badly."

Distemper is considered a lethal and incurable virus. Spring is considered to be distemper season. But what's happening now is believed to be more than that. Harris County Animal Control is seeing about 20 percent more distemper cases than normal. Then there's the wildlife population. Raccoons are susceptible to distemper. Since January more have been brought into Houston's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

"So when people don't inoculate or go through the series of inoculations on their pet animals, that's how the raccoons can get it," explained Sharon Schmalz of the Wildlife Rehab Center. "Of course when people trap raccoons and move them, they actually move the disease from places to places."

The last time there was an unexpected increase in distemper cases was after Hurricane Ike. Animals were rescued from abandoned homes were kept in shelters. The prevention is simple -- vaccinate puppies with a series of shots and follow up with regular booster shots as adults. Some owners may be neglecting that because of the economic downturn, which means their pets are vulnerable. But vets don't accept that argument.

"When we have clinics that offer them for very, very reasonable costs, (not to get them) is inexcusable to me," said Dr. Schweiss.

There's another reason to vaccinate if your pet hasn't already received its shots. The Houston SPCA is also seeing an increase in the number of parvo cases coming into the shelter in the past week or so.

If you need low cost vaccinations, you can contact the Houston Humane Society or SNAP.

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