It’s Just a Little Cough

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Doctor, my new puppy has been coughing for a couple of days now,” Lila said into the phone. “Do you think you could get a look at him?”

“Sure, Lila, we are not in our clinic yet, but I can look at him at the house,” I said. “We have only been seeing patients for the last week, and we are not very busy. We could look at your pup right away.”

I examined Rex. A cute little Chocolate Lab pup. He had a slight temperature and a cough, but otherwise, he looked good.

“This could be kennel cough. Which, if that is the case, it will clear up easily with some antibiotics for a few days,” I said. “But, and it is a big but, I have seen several puppies in the last week with the same signs, and those puppies had canine distemper.”

“But Doctor, it is just a little cough,” Lila said. “Isn’t distemper a much more severe disease?”

“Distemper comes on in phases. The first phase is probably not noticed by most people. The might be a temperature, and the puppy is not bouncing around for a day, then he is back to normal. The next stage starts out as a cough, like this, that is indistinguishable from kennel cough. But in Distemper, rather than it getting better, it gets much worse. We see pneumonia and often diarrhea. Then it can progress to the central nervous system.”

“Is there anything we can do,” Lila asked?

“Unfortunately, at this point, there is not much we can do. We can send some samples to the lab, but time will give us the same answer. We can treat pneumonia and diarrhea, but in a puppy of this age, most of the time, the disease progresses to a brain infection, and seizures develop. Most of the puppies this age who get Distemper do not survive.”

“If this is distemper, I am going to be really mad,” Lila said. “The owner gave this pup a vaccine when I picked him up three days ago. That vaccine must have given him the disease.”

“The vaccine didn’t cause the disease, Lila,” I said. “If this turns out to be Distemper, the pup was incubating the disease before he was vaccinated. It is just a matter of timing.”

“If I hear you correctly, we are going to put him on some antibiotics and wait to see what happens,” Lila said. “What about another vaccine?”

“No additional vaccine today, but later, if he pulls through this,” I said. “Puppy vaccinations are complex because these pups get some immunity from their mothers, and we never know just when that immunity disappears. We know that it is gone in 90% of the pups by 12 weeks of age and virtually gone in all pups at 16 weeks. That is why we give a series of vaccines.”

“When will I know if Rex is going to be okay,” Lila asked?

“I think we will know in a few days. We should set up a recheck on Monday. There would be an outside chance that he could recover from the respiratory disease and then start seizures a couple of weeks later. But that would be unusual.”

“Maybe you could give him a vaccination then,” Lila asked?

“That might be a good idea since we don’t know anything about the vaccine the owner gave,” I said. “We will deworm him also. That is assuming he is doing okay at that time.”

“You are not very optimistic, Doctor,” Lila said.

“Very cautious at this point. I have seen more Distemper cases in the first few weeks in Sweet Home than I have ever heard of someone seeing. We have a very under-vaccinated dog population and a high incidence of disease.”

After Lila left, Paula, my new assistant, was eager it expand her understanding of canine Distemper.

“How are we going to deal with this disease situation,” Paula asked?

“Vaccination is the way to deal with this disease. It is highly contagious. Vaccination for puppies can be complex, Dr. Craig uses a measles vaccine initially. The measles virus and the canine distemper virus are very similar. But that vaccine is not used much these days. We will use a series of vaccinations, 2 or 3, depending on when they are started.”

“That will solve the problem,” Paula asked?

“This community has not had a veterinarian before me. There is probably a majority of the dog population that is not vaccinated. It is a disease that will take years of work and education to control. The best thing we can do is protect the clinic. We will require a vaccine two weeks before any clinic stay.”

“Why two weeks before a procedure?”

“If a dog is incubating the virus, the vaccine will not prevent the disease. The dog will get sick following vaccination. People will often blame the vaccine for the illness, just like Lila was prepared to do. If they visit the clinic for a procedure, a neuter, for example, and we vaccinate them on the day of the visit. If they get sick the following week, they will blame the vaccine and/or the clinic. If we require a vaccine 2 weeks before the procedure, if they are going to get sick, they will get sick before their clinic stay.”

Lila was all smiles when she returned with Rex. Rex was recovered from his cough and was bouncing around like a young puppy was expected to do.

“I hope this means we are home free,” Lila asked?

“Probably, but I have to reserve a small hedge, just in case. Rex looks outstanding. I think we can vaccinate and deworm him with little concern.”

I struggled against the distemper virus for several years in Sweet Home. We had significant problems with the city-run dog control. The facility they were using to house captured dogs was a nidus for infection. When we finally reached a point where most dogs were vaccinated and the city pound was disinfected, the infection rate declined dramatically, just in time for the Parvovirus pandemic.

Photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

4 thoughts on “It’s Just a Little Cough

  1. I will now look for opportunities to use the word nidus three times today. That usually does the trick. 🙂

    Very interesting notes in this story about the function of wide spread vaccination (or lack thereof) in controlling diseases like Distemper. Care to elucidate on the role of herd immunity in our current viral challenge?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Herd immunity is inferred in this story and achieved in Sweet Home for Canine Distemper. But it took close to five years. I cannot remember the last case of distemper but I think it was that long get dog control under control.
      In my education and through my 40+ years of practice, the 70% figure for herd immunity was a constant. Now I hear the ‘experts’ talk about 85 or 90% for Covid. That, along with other things, makes me question (on my mind) their expertise.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. News from a friend in the U.K., where they have apparently been using veterinarians to help with human Covid vaccinations – “…Another was vaccinated by a vet, who said she stayed still better than his usual clients.”

        Liked by 1 person

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