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DEM: Distemper Outbreak Underscores Dog Vaccination Need

[Frederika Peace] A distemper outbreak has prompted the DEM to remind dog owners to keep their pets' vaccinations up to date.

[Frederika Peace] A distemper outbreak has prompted the DEM to remind dog owners to keep their pets' vaccinations up to date.
[Frederika Peace] A distemper outbreak has prompted the DEM to remind dog owners to keep their pets’ vaccinations up to date.
WARWICK, RI — The Jamestown and Warwick Police Departments report a high number of raccoons and skunks infected with canine distemper virus (CDV), prompting the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s reminder to keep dogs’ vaccinations up to date.

Distemper vaccination is not required by law, making it likely many dogs in Rhode Island are not vaccinated against CDV.

Both departments report calls from residents describing sickly-looking raccoons and skunks. Officers euthanized several animals that were exhibiting symptoms including shaking, walking in circles, and loss of awareness of people approaching them. DEM’s Division of Fish & Wildlife submitted these animals for testing and the test results recently confirmed the diagnosis of CDV.

The distemper virus attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of puppies and dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The virus can be found among wildlife such as foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, minks, and ferrets; however, wild animals usually are affected after being exposed to the virus from an infected dog, DEM reports.

Puppies and dogs most often become infected through airborne exposure to the virus through sneezing or coughing. The virus is transmitted from an infected animal or when dogs have direct contact with droppings from an infected animal, according to the DEM. It can also be transmitted by shared food and water bowls (so don’t leave pet food dishes outside).

Infected dogs can shed the virus for months and mother dogs can pass the virus to their puppies, according to the AVMA states. Since canine distemper also affects wildlife populations, contact between wild animals and domestic dogs can facilitate the spread of the virus. Canine distemper outbreaks in local raccoon populations can signal increased risk for pet dogs in the area, the DEM stated.

Symptoms of the illness typically include an emaciated appearance, disorientation, lethargy, and aimless wandering. Historically, distemper has been rare in Rhode Island because of strictly enforced regulations protecting animals living here from imported diseases. However, DEM officials have noticed an uptick in cases related to the importation of rescue dogs from southern states, where CDV is much more prevalent. In April, DEM had to quarantine two rescue shelters and associated foster homes that import dogs from areas of the country with a higher prevalence of CDV because of a diagnosis of CDV in dogs they had imported into the state.

“Canine distemper is a devastating disease for dogs and wildlife,” said State Veterinarian Scott Marshall. “Dog owners can protect their pets and minimize risk to wildlife by ensuring their dogs are properly vaccinated against distemper and not bringing pets into public that aren’t fully immunized.”

The American Animal Hospital Association’s 2011 guidelines state that puppies (under 16 weeks of age) should get booster shots every three to four weeks unti 16 weeks old, and that adult dogs (16 weeks and older) should only receive one vaccine for CDV.

Tips from the American Veterinary Medical Association on how to prevent the virus:

  • Vaccination is crucial in preventing canine distemper.
  • Avoid gaps in the immunization schedule and make sure distemper vaccinations are up to date.
  • Avoid contact with infected animals and wildlife. Keep pet food dishes inside.
  • Use caution when socializing puppies or unvaccinated dogs at parks, puppy classes, obedience classes, doggy day care, and other places where dogs can congregate.
  • Pet ferrets should be vaccinated against canine distemper using a USDA-approved ferret vaccine.

For more information about DEM divisions and programs, visit

Rob Borkowski
Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of Contact him at [email protected] with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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