Canine distemper outbreak in Waterberg

Dr. Peter Caldwell spoke about the severity of the outbreak of canine distemper in the Waterberg district
Dr. Peter Caldwell spoke about the severity of the outbreak of canine distemper in the Waterberg district

VAALWATER — The Waterberg Nature Conservancy members got together for a meeting on Thursday, 18 February, at 14:00 at the NG Church lapa in Vaalwater. First speaker of the day, Doctor Peter Caldwell, spoke about how really bad the canine distemper outbreak in the Waterberg is.
Caldwell received the South African Veterinary Association Clinical Award 2015 (for excellence in Applied Veterinary Practice) his current research interests include, amongst others, special interest in carnivores, prolific work with rhino, buffalo, giraffe and most other wildlife species as well as gastritis, nutrition, medicine, surgery and cryptococcus meningitis in cheetahs.
What is Canine Distemper? Canine distemper is an extremely contagious and often fatal disease caused by a virus. It is the leading killer of dogs worldwide. 50% of dogs and 80% of puppies usually die if infected with this disease. Adult dogs that survive the disease will have a permanent disability afterwards.
What animals can be infected? Domestic and wild species of dogs; ferrets; foxes; jackals; seals; some primates; large cat species, including lions and leopards. House cats and cheetah are not susceptible to the disease.
The disease is spread through close contact and transfer of saliva or other body fluids between individuals. Predators eating from the same carcass may also spread the virus to other individuals. There is speculation that some animals, like jackal, might be carriers for the disease but this has not been proven scientifically.
Symptoms include; high fever; eye inflammation; nose and eye discharge; laboured breathing and coughing; vomiting and diarrhoea; loss of appetite and weakness; hardening of nose and footpads.
Advanced symptoms include; involuntary twitching, seizures, excessive salivation or foaming from the mouth; convulsions; blindness; paralysis and death. “In lions, brown hyena and leopard they have shown symptoms of involuntary twitching, seizures similar to epilepsy and walking around in circles on the same spot,” Caldwell explained.
There is no treatment for canine distemper. Antibiotics can be given to treat secondary infections, but it is down to the immune system of the animal to beat the disease. If you suspect your pet is infected seek veterinary advice immediately.
The disease is preventable. The annual vaccine (the 5-in-1 injection) offered at all veterinary surgery’s covers canine distemper as well as other contagious diseases. By keeping your dog vaccinated you will prevent infection and spread of the disease.
“There have been cases of canine distemper within the Vaalwater area, and this is now spreading to our wild populations of predators jeopardising their survival,” a very worried Doctor Caldwell said. “The group of roaming wild dog in the Waterberg area have all been vaccinated against the disease and are being monitored daily, but there are already a number of other species where signs of the disorder have been noted and carcasses of dead animals have been picked up.”
All possible cases of canine distemper in wild animals must be reported as soon as possible so that the extent of the outbreak can be determined.
Caldwell said that the factors that may lead to a larger scale outbreak are:

  • The environment – climate extremes
  • Droughts versus floods
  • Ambient temperatures
  • Parasite burdens on animals (high levels of ticks)
  • Farms neighbouring each other closely
  • Small camp systems and the fact that animals cannot migrate to get away from the disease
  • Infected animals roaming around getting in contact with wild animals.

Welgevonden Game Reserve between Vaalwater and Lephalale had several incidents with their lions and most of their lion pride had to be euthanized because of the distemper. They are currently monitoring all other predators on the reserve very carefully and are still waiting for vaccinations to arrive from America.
Be a responsible pet owner and vaccinate your pets as soon as possible and help to save the Waterberg’s wildlife.
So far it is not believed that the disease can infect human cells or cause an outbreak in people, however, people that have tested positive for HIV or that are receiving chemo therapy for cancer might be at risk.

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