Not all dogs with distemper should be euthanized

Q: We just adopted a dog from a shelter up north and now that he’s down here he’s tested positive for distemper virus. We thought he just had a cold or kennel cough, but when it got worse and we took him to our vet it turns out he has this terrible disease. He’s in the hospital now but we’re thinking of euthanizing him. What’s your experience with this?

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Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami.

A: Distemper in dogs is caused by a virus that is spread through most body fluids including saliva, urine and blood. At first, the disease can look like kennel cough, with goopy eyes, fever, runny nose, coughing and lethargy as the most common symptoms. Later signs of infection can include seizures and even paralysis.

That’s why getting a distemper vaccine for any dog is critical. This we all know. Unfortunately, that’s usually all most dog owners know about distemper. And that’s not always good enough. Not if your recent shelter rescue just came down with it and you’re wondering whether you can manage such a devastating diagnosis.

Plenty of dogs can survive distemper virus. But not without a fight — which means expensive veterinary care some dog owners might not be able to shoulder. Indeed, it can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to treat distemper successfully. And, even then, a severe case may prove deadly despite even the most valiant efforts.

As if the sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, high fever, vomiting and diarrhea weren’t enough, most of these dogs will have neurological problems, too. Head tics, seizures, weakness and imbalance can result. And some of these things can be permanent. But is it reason enough to euthanize them?

As someone who sees plenty of dogs live long, happy and otherwise healthy lives after distemper, I have strong reservations about blanket recommendations in favor of euthanasia for these patients. Most of the neurological effects aren’t typically severe enough to significantly interfere with good quality of life.

However, for patients whose families have few financial resources or where dogs are suffering through the virus too uncomfortably, I can understand euthanasia. For those who elect it based on the possibility of permanent neurological damage, however, I tend to question its necessity.

Dogs with distemper virus should be given a chance, if possible, to recover and enjoy lives free of disease, even if they might have the occasional seizure, a consistent head tilt or nervous tic. As long as the long-term effects don’t bother them (and, in my experience, they usually don’t), I’d say go for it.

Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is Send questions to