State urges dog owners to use caution as canine distemper outbreak confirmed

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State officials are urging dog owners to make sure their pets’ vaccinations are up to date following confirmation of a canine distemper outbreak in two Rhode Island communities.

According to a statement from the Department of Environmental Management, police in both Warwick and Jamestown reported a “high number of raccoons and skunks apparently being infected” with the canine distemper virus, or CDV, in their communities in recent weeks.

“Jamestown and Warwick Police advised that over the past two months, they have taken calls from residents saying they'd seen sickly-looking raccoons and skunks,” a statement from REM reads. “Officers euthanized several animals that were exhibiting symptoms such as shaking, walking in circles, and loss of awareness of people approaching them.”

Subsequent testing of the animals through DEM’s Division of Fish & Wildlife confirmed the diagnosis of CDV, according to the statement.

Canine distemper – described as a “contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs” – is not transmissible to humans but if often fatal for infected dogs, DEM said. Symptoms can include emaciated appearance, disorientation, lethargy and aimless wandering.

The virus can be found in animals such as foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, minks and ferrets, according to DEM, although wildlife are typically exposed through contact with an infected dog. Puppies and dogs can become infected through airborne transmission, contact with the droppings of an infected animal or the use of shared water and food bowls.

“Historically, distemper has been rare in Rhode Island because of strictly enforced regulations protecting animals living here from imported diseases,” DEM’s statement reads. “However, DEM officials have noticed an uptick in cases related to the importation of rescue dogs from southern states, where CDV is much more prevalent. In April, DEM had to quarantine two rescue shelters and associated foster homes that import dogs from areas of the country with a higher prevalence of CDV because of a diagnosis of CDV in dogs they had imported into the state.”

Unlike the rabies vaccination, a vaccine against CDV is not legally required for dogs in Rhode Island, and DEM notes that as a result many local pets have not been vaccinated.

According to state officials, the American Animal Hospital Association’s 2011 guidelines call for puppies under 16 weeks of age to be boostered every three to four weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age, and that adult dogs 16 weeks and older should only receive one vaccine for CDV.

“Canine distemper is a devastating disease for dogs and wildlife,” State Veterinarian Scott Marshall, DVM, said in DEM’s statement. “Dog owners can protect their pets and minimize risk to wildlife by ensuring their dogs are properly vaccinated against distemper and not bringing pets into public that aren’t fully immunized.”

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, additional steps to prevent the spread of the virus include keeping pet food and water dishes indoors, using caution when socializing puppies or unvaccinated dogs in public settings and ensuring pet ferrets have been vaccinated against the disease.

Additional information is available at dem.ri.gov.

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