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County urges people to vaccinate dogs after dozens of distemper cases found in raccoons, coyotes

The first case of distemper in a wild animal was discovered in Santa Cruz County on Feb. 17, and, since then, animal shelter officials have responded to two new cases each day on average. Here’s what you can do to keep your dog safe.

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is offering low-cost vaccines and microchips for pets after dozens of cases of distemper have been seen among raccoons and coyotes on the Westside.

Distemper is a contagious airborne virus that can infect wildlife such as raccoons, coyotes and skunks and be spread to dogs with deadly results. The virus has no known cure; if an infected dog recovers, it will most likely suffer “permanent, irreparable nervous system damage,” according to the American Vetinerary Medical Association.

A Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter spokesperson told Lookout the first case of distemper was discovered on Feb. 17 and since then, shelter officials have been seeing approximately two cases per day in wild animals — mostly raccoons and a single infected coyote. There have yet to be any cases reported in pets here since the outbreak began.

Most of the wild-animal cases have been reported on the Westside of Santa Cruz in the area between Ingalls Street and West Cliff Drive and then over to National Street. A smaller number of cases have been reported countywide.

A file image of a raccoon
(via Pixabay)

Unlike rabies, which spreads through the bites of infected animals, distemper is airborne, shelter spokesperson Erika Smart said.

As a result, pet owners who have outdoor water and food bowls for their dogs should be especially careful to either bring the bowls indoors or keep them cleaned regularly. That’s because raccoons and other animals might use those bowls, potentially leaving behind the airborne disease-causing pathogens.

Raccoons and other animals that have distemper appear to be sick with “gunky eyes and nose ... almost like they have a cold,” Smart said. They also behave strangely, move slowly and appear intoxicated.

Smart said sometimes the wild animals with distemper will not behave like wild animals. They might not run away when a human approaches, she said, which is an effect of the virus “eating away at their brain.”

This isn’t the first time Santa Cruz County has seen a rise in distemper cases, Smart said. In 2015, there was an outbreak in Watsonville. While Highway 1 acted as a kind of barrier for infected animals, cases eventually began spreading across the county.

Here’s what you need to know about the virus:

What is distemper?

It is a contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of infected animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

What are the symptoms of distemper in dogs?

The AVMA says at first, dogs will “develop watery to pus-like discharge from their eyes.” As the virus progresses, they will develop a fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite and vomiting.

When the virus attacks the nervous system, dogs can develop “circling behavior, head tilt, muscle twitches, convulsions with jaw chewing movements and salivation (‘chewing gum fits’), seizures and partial or complete paralysis.”

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How to prevent infection?

Officials say vaccination is crucial and “the only way” to prevent infection and keep your dog safe.

To that end, the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is offering $10 vaccine packages to Santa Cruz County pet owners on March 18 and March 25, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on each of those days. The shelter is at 1001 Rodriguez Street (the corner of Seventh Avenue & Rodriguez Street) in Santa Cruz.

These packages include:

  • DA2pp (Distemper/Parvo) vaccine for dogs, with a current county license. If your dog doesn’t have a license, you can buy one on-site for $29 for an altered pet and $100 for an unaltered pet.
  • FVRCP vaccine (Cats only. Though feline distemper exists, it spreads differently than canine distemper; the animal shelter is taking this opportunity to help cat owners, too.)
  • Rabies vaccine
  • Microchip (including registration)

To learn more about canine distemper, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association website.

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