By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Animal control and public health officials have identified multiple cases of canine distemper virus in Amesbury, and residents are being urged to take precautions to protect their pets from the rabies-like disease.
Canine distemper is a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease that usually starts with respiratory symptoms before attacking the nervous system. The disease can’t be contracted by humans, but a large number of small mammals, particularly dogs, could be at risk of getting sick.
“It’s similar to measles from what I’ve been told if it were a human disease, it’s similar for dogs,” said Eric Gregoire, the mayor’s chief of staff. “It impacts animal species, small mammals, skunks, raccoons.”
Distemper’s symptoms often include fever, loss of appetite, distress, coughing, sneezing, diarrhea and discharge from the eyes or nostrils. Infected animals may also lose their fear of humans and become aggressive, appear blind, stumble around and fall, and animals that are typically nocturnal may be seen wandering aimlessly during the day.
Like many other infectious diseases, the distemper virus is usually contracted via close contact with something that has already been infected. Distemper is typically spread through shared food and through frequently visited watering holes in the wild.
In the case of dogs, the most susceptible individuals would be puppies between three to six months of age. Those dogs would also be the most likely to develop severe illnesses like pneumonia or encephalitis (swelling of the brain) as a result of the disease. Older dogs are less likely to develop these conditions due to a natural buildup of the immune system, but unvaccinated dogs would still be at risk.
To protect local pets and keep the disease from spreading, Gregoire recommended that residents get their pets vaccinated, stay away from infected animals and avoid leaving food outside.
“If you feed your pet outside, make sure you bring the leftover food back inside because that will attract a lot of wild animals, which will spread the disease,” Gregoire said.
Gregoire emphasized distemper is a commonly occurring illness in the wild and its presence in Amesbury isn’t cause for alarm. The virus ordinarily peaks in early spring each year, and residents should just be aware of it and take all necessary precautions to protect their pets.
“As it starts to get warmer, it’ll become less of an occurrence,” Gregoire said. “But now it’s mating season and with feeding habits, it’s transmitted through respiration and other fluids, so that’s how it’s being contracted.”
If a resident suspects that their pet has been infected, they should contact their veterinarian immediately, Gregoire said. Similarly, residents who encounter a wild animal in an obvious state of illness should immediately contact the Amesbury Police Department at 978-388-1212 to reach animal control officials.