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Distemper Outbreak in Central Park

By Amy Fernandez

As we know, you can find anything in NYC including a homegrown distemper outbreak smack in the middle of Central Park!  Yes, that iconic urban landmark never ceases to surprise us. This wasn’t one of the good ones.

The first wave of concern broke in late June when several park raccoons were reported to be acting strangely, wandering about like zoned out junkies and fearlessly approaching humans. This lead the ever insightful press to dub them ‘zombie raccoons’ and health officials expressed their fear of a rabies outbreak.  Subsequently, 2 of the 26 dead raccoons collected by the Parks Department tested positive for the canine distemper virus. The understandable reaction was akin to announcing an outbreak of smallpox. No way…

This virus spreads like wildfire via any bodily fluid and numerous canid species are susceptible. A few years back, a canine distemper outbreak nearly wiped out the black-footed ferret. Normally, this wouldn’t be worrisome, even though Central Park is perpetually packed with dogs both inside and outside the popular dog park and off leash zones. The post-WWII introduction and utilization of effective vaccination protocols virtually eliminated the endemic threats posed by this and other infectious diseases that routinely killed half the canine population.  You know the old adage, ‘Outta sight, outta mind’.

Although Canine Chronicle readers realize the implications of lax vaccination routines, a shocking number of otherwise dedicated pet owners have opted to skip them. This is not news. A few years back a minor leptospirosis epidemic took a shocking toll on pampered pets in the ritzy Hamptons -for precisely that reason. Plenty of heartbroken owners got a life/death reality check when they discovered that no amount of money or veterinary care can cure this dreaded disease.

It’s basically the same deal here. Distemper has a 50-80 percent mortality rate, which doesn’t imply smooth sailing for survivors that frequently suffer irreversible neurological impairment and/or organ damage. As noted, dogs are not the only vector affected by this virus.  Recovering animals continue to shed the virus for months. However, it has become so rare in domestic dogs that the majority of vets have never seen a case. That attests to the effectiveness of vaccinations, but it has also bred misplaced complacency. Distemper long ago ceased to be the scourge of canine populations, but it hasn’t gone away.

I debated whether to write about this, as I was hoping it was a false alarm. Well, it’s not. Distemper is difficult to diagnose. Initial symptoms can run the gamut from vomiting and diarrhea to sneezing, coughing and pneumonia. The neurological impairment exhibited by the zombie raccoons don’t occur until much later on, which according to NYC Health Department officials suggests that this has been brewing for awhile.

Unfortunately, that’s not idle speculation. The raccoon death count is now hovering around 100 and a necropsy of one Central Park fox has also shown a positive result for distemper. The thing is that even though many canid species are susceptible to this virus, there’s a reason why it’s called CANINE distemper. Current thinking strongly suggests that local (unvaccinated) dogs are the primary source of this outbreak. Herd immunity is a great thing but it does have a breaking point.

I’m not gonna talk about the horrifying possibilities of viral mutation and resistant strains. But seriously… there’s no reason for this to happen.

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Posted by on Sep 11 2018. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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