Veterinarians and wildlife managers are fighting a congestion outbreak on two fronts – in young dogs recently purchased as family pets and in ferocious creatures that roam the intersection of open spaces and residential areas in the Inland Empire.
In almost all cases, the animals become seriously ill and do not survive despite aggressive treatment, experts said.
An animal hospital in Murrieta treated 15 to 20 dogs with distemper this year, with the outbreak going well beyond the one or two cases that typically occur each year, said Dr. Sarah Hoggan, emergency veterinarian and medical director of the VCA California Veterinary Specialists animal hospital.
“Personally, I haven’t seen this type of breakout in my experience,” said Hoggan. She has been working as a veterinarian in the hospital for 18 years.
Meanwhile, technicians at Rancho Cucamonga Animal Services Department have seen six raccoons with the canine distemper virus in the past two months, said Veronica Fincher, director of animal services.
Fincher said she was not concerned about the increase in wildlife in north Rancho Cucamonga, but was keeping a close eye on the virus to make sure it doesn’t spread to domestic cats and dogs.
The virus cannot be transmitted to humans.
â€œIt’s more than usual, especially when some come with the same symptoms. We want to keep a close eye on it, â€said Fincher. “So we are reminding residents to make sure their pets are vaccinated and safe.”
Canine distemper virus (CDV) can be transmitted to domestic dogs and cats by raccoons, skunks, coyotes, rabbits, jackals, foxes, ferrets, hyenas, lions, tigers, seals, sea lions, and dolphins, according to the Veterinary Information Network’s source of information compiled by researchers and veterinarians said Hoggan.
The surge in CDV cases in wildlife populations began in February 2020 when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported an “abnormally high number” of CDV in wildlife across the state. Gray foxes, raccoons and skunks are the most commonly affected wildlife species, the department reported.
Domestic dogs can get the disease through a bowl of food or water left outside and thus shared with infected wild carnivores.
“Wild animals can transmit distemper to domestic dogs, but unvaccinated domestic dogs can also transmit the disease to wild animals,” the department reported.
According to experts at the CDFW, the disease is transmitted through inhalation of infected respiratory droplets or direct contact with saliva, nasal discharge and tears, and occasionally with feces and urine. The virus doesn’t survive long in the environment, so it’s more of a problem in dense, wild carnivore populations – in other words, close contact spreads the disease.
CDV attacks the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and nervous system in dogs, cats and wild animals. In cats, the distemper virus is called panleukopenia. Symptoms begin with fever, nasal discharge, lethargy and lead to neurological irregularities such as tremors, followed by convulsions and seizures.
â€œThe ones we have seen do not survive despite aggressive treatment. Once it’s in the central nervous system, the diagnosis is severe, â€Hoggan said.
Hoggan said most of the dog cases she handled were pups 16 weeks of age or younger brought to us by families in Murrieta and Temecula. Many are bought by breeders online, including purchases through Craig’s List, an online-only listing service, Hoggan said.
New owners from across Riverside County bring their pups who are lethargic, runny nose, not energetic like your typical puppy, she said. For each case, a laboratory confirmed the presence of the virus in the deceased dog’s DNA, she said.
The CDFW has not yet investigated these cases from the Murrieta Veterinary Clinic, but is very interested.
“We tried to get CDV samples from infected domestic dogs so we could isolate and genotype the virus – and compare it to the variant currently documented in various California carnivores,” said Jaime Rudd, wildlife health specialist at the department’s health lab in Rancho Cordova said in an email.
Hoggan said it was very sad to see families, especially those with children, buy a puppy and then see it die in just a few weeks.
â€œThat’s our goal: to save someone from a broken heart. It’s a fight we’re losing, â€she said.
Families tell her that if they try to contact the seller again, they will get no or no response. Hoggan suspects that the pups and their mothers are not vaccinated and both may have lived in confined spaces in an unclean environment.
“People who adopt puppies should try to adopt them from reputable sources,” Hoggan said.
At Rancho Cucamonga, Fincher reported an increase in wild rabbits infected with a similar deadly virus called rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus, which can be transmitted to domestic rabbits. As of July 2020, the Rancho Cucamonga Department has reported five cases of RHDV in San Bernardino County. In May 2020, the first RHDV case was discovered in Riverside. This disease is similar to canine distemper in the contagion process and symptoms that the animal experiences.
In northern California, the endangered shore brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani riparius), which lives in and around the San Joaquin and Stanislaus Rivers, is at risk of the deadly disease, according to the Conservation Society of California. The Oakland Zoo has been working to deliver vaccines to the wild population, the company reported.
Like domestic dogs, the best way to prevent infection in domestic rabbits is to get them vaccinated, experts say.
“Vaccinating domestic dogs could also prevent the infection from spreading to wildlife,” Rudd said in an email response.
A drive-through vaccine clinic will be held in the parking lot of the Rancho Cucamonga Animal Center on Saturday, July 3, from 12.30pm to 2.30pm. The center is located on 11780 Arrow Route. Masks are compulsory. For more information, call 909-466-7387 or email [email protected].