By Nicholas Gilmore
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Rio Grande SUN Staff Writer

The current canine distemper outbreak in the Española valley presents many of the same kinds of challenges brought upon by COVID-19.

Dr. Gretchen Yost, a veterinarian at Española Humane, pointed out some parallels between the two diseases: respiratory symptoms, lengthy periods of incubation and contagiousness.

Yost has treated animals in the area for 22 years, and she said she has never seen as many cases of deadly canine distemper as there have been in the Española valley since last autumn. Parvovirus is currently widespread as well, she said, but it is probably on track with infections in past years.

Since last September, the shelter has found 139 cases of distemper, with a peak in November 2021. Three-fourths of dogs diagnosed had minor signs or were asymptomatic, Yost wrote in an email, meaning they could shed the virus to other susceptible dogs.

“Shelters are going to be able to identify it better than veterinary clinics because we are the daycare of the community,” Yost said, adding that by the very nature of their services and clientele, the shelter is in the best position to pinpoint and help fight such an outbreak.

Since the problem isn’t limited to northern New Mexico — many communities around the U.S. have reported rises in distemper — Yost said the nationwide outbreak is most likely directly connected to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The distemper vaccine has been effective and widely available since the middle of the last century, but Yost said when the pandemic hit many shelters and veterinary clinics were struggling to serve their clients while keeping staff safe. She believes many pet owners have delayed vaccinations and veterinary care for their pets since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

“I think we have a whole generation of animals born in the valley and kept at home but not vaccinated like they maybe would have done,” Yost said.

Now, shelter staff are doing everything they can to slow the spread of distemper and get more pets in the valley vaccinated.

Distemper infects dogs mostly through airborne particles. Though it does not affect cats, distemper can spread through wild animals like raccoons, foxes and coyotes as well.

An infected dog will begin showing respiratory symptoms like sneezing and discharge from the nose and eyes — what Yost referred to as “goopy eyes” — accompanied by lethargy and reduced appetite. Once advanced, the virus infects the dog’s nervous system, causing twitches, convulsions, seizures and paralysis.

There is no cure for distemper, and the mortality rate is about 50 percent for dogs and 80 percent for puppies, according to Cornell University’s Wildlife Health Lab. Once a dog enters advanced stages of the disease, Yost said, there is nothing to be done except to give supportive care and eventually euthanization.

Parvovirus is less fatal. Survival rates can be 85 to 90 percent with treatment, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Symptoms of parvovirus typically begin with vomiting and diarrhea, and most deaths from the disease occur within two to three days of infection.

The testing process for both diseases can be costly, but distemper takes longer to identify.

Parvovirus tests can return results in 10 minutes, while distemper tests can take up to 10 days.

Like COVID-19, distemper is diagnosed from the results of a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test. Dogs with symptoms are given a nasal swab that is then sent to the New Mexico Veterinary Diagnostic Services Division, located in the same building as the state laboratory that processes PCR tests for COVID-19.

Española Humane has performed about 800 distemper tests in the last nine months, Yost said, and each one costs $45. There is also labor involved in performing the tests and analyzing results.

The shelter has spent about an equal amount on parvovirus tests, Yost said, which are about half the price.

“When you’re a nonprofit, it’s a lot of money to spend on testing,” Yost said, adding that the shelter’s board did not hesitate to approve the spending.

Beginning late last year, the shelter started testing every puppy intake for distemper as well as any dog that shows symptoms.

Staff also began scheduling intakes in advance to mitigate the spread of viruses. Whereas beforehand, people were encouraged to bring in dogs and cats at any time, shelter staff now ask clients to keep animals for two weeks before bringing them in.

“We’re not doing this because we don’t want to work or because we don’t want to help,” Yost said. “We absolutely do, but keeping that animal outside the walls of the shelter is often the safest option … If an animal is injured, we absolutely take it immediately, but otherwise, we do ask if they can keep it until we can schedule a time for intake. We vaccinnate it that day, then ask if they can keep it for two weeks so it can start to be protected before it comes through our doors.”

In addition to controlling their intake of animals, the shelter has also been practicing extra precautions. Staff have been cutting back on handling puppies, and when they do they wear gowns and gloves to decrease the risk of transmitting germs from other dogs. It has been heartbreaking to reduce handling and socialization for their puppies, Yost said, but it is ultimately a safer protocol.

The shelter is always seeking foster volunteers to reduce crowding and give personal attention to animals that have yet to be adopted.

For the last six months, Española Humane has also been offering free animal vaccine clinics for the community twice monthly. For altered (fixed) animals, the clinics are free for Rio Arriba County residents and $10 for Santa Fe County residents. For intact animals, the price is $10 and $20, respectively.

Yost urges dog owners to make sure they are up to date on their pets’ vaccinations.

For dogs, she recommends the 5-in-1 vaccine (which protects against distemper and parvovirus, among other diseases) at least every three years, along with regular rabies vaccinations, which are state-mandated.

Puppies begin vaccinations at six weeks, with regular booster shots until they are four months old.

“Every puppy has a period of susceptibility,” Yost said. “That’s the very scary thing, so stay on schedule with vaccines until you get to the four-month mark. And before that mark, keep your puppy in as big of a bubble as you can. Don’t take them around other dogs.”

For pet owners who are comfortable administering vaccinations on their own dogs, 5-in-1 vaccines can also be purchased at many pet supply and farm supply stores.

The best way to help control this outbreak, Yost said, is to get pets vaccinated as soon as possible.

“You’re not going to be able to catch everything, no matter how much testing you do,” she said. “We didn’t create this virus, but it is here in our community and we want to do everything we can to mitigate it.”

This article first appeared in the June 20, 2022, edition of the Rio Grande Sun.