Whole Dog Journal's Blog December 21, 2016

Thankful for Dog Vaccines

Posted at 04:30PM - Comments: (10)

My husband and I were talking about childhood dogs for some reason, and he said, “We got a dog when I was little and it died of distemper, and my parents said, ‘That’s it, no more dogs.’”

When he said that, I suddenly remembered that my family, too, had lost a young dog to distemper when I was a child.  I have a solid memory of my mother wiping up vomit, and the adolescent pup lying limply nearby, and my mother telling me, “I don’t think she’s going to make it.” I was probably about four or five years old, but I knew that this phrase meant the dog was probably going to die.

That memory compelled me to go look up the history of the canine distemper vaccine. Was it not available to the average dog owner in the mid to late 1960s? Or were our parents just irresponsible? Or what?

It turns out that both explanations were probable. The canine distemper vaccine became widely available only in the late 1960s – and neither my husband’s parents nor my own were particularly knowledgeable pet owners. It’s likely that the vaccine was something that was only newly available to pet owners, and not yet part of what every puppy from a responsible breeder or in a shelter received.

While some veterinarians still take a “wrap puppies in cotton wool” approach, advising owners to keep puppies sequestered at home until they are fully immunized – in order to prevent them from contracting any infectious disease – many others now consider puppies to be at a higher risk of developing social/behavioral disorders if they are prevented from socializing as puppies. Vaccination rates are so high today, that the deadliest canine infectious diseases are rare enough that taking pups into most environments is far safer than it was when I was a child.

Note that I said safer – not perfectly safe. Vaccination rates will never be 100 percent, and there are wildlife vectors that can bring diseases like distemper (and rabies) back into even very urban environments and set off waves of disease infection in areas where vaccination rates are low.

Today (here in the U.S., anyway), with effective vaccines being not just widely available, but also relatively inexpensive, I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of a highly contagious, highly lethal disease being so common that practically everyone who had a dog had heard of it, and knew someone whose dog died of it. I’m so grateful to have these lifesaving tools available, and I don’t take them for granted.

By the way, in the process of investigating the distemper vaccine, I came across a fascinating article about the race to develop the vaccine: “‘Saving the lives of our dogs’: The development of canine distemper vaccine in interwar Britain.” If you like dogs (and I don’t think you’d be reading this if you didn’t) and you like science-writing, you’ll enjoy this account of how competing scientists fought for understanding, funding and acclaim as they worked to defeat this terrible disease.

Comments (10)

I have heard from reliable dog people that no cases or parvo or distemper have been diagnosed in dogs that were vaccinated as puppies, and given a booster at one year. Is this still true?

As for the date of vaccines' availability--we did not have TVs in the 40's or very many in the 50's. There were no pet programs to educate citizens on TV or radio. Remember Arthur Godfrey? Edward R Morrow? Those were the general scope of public broadcasting. Newspapers didn't have pet education in them--they wrote sparse, need to know category items.

Posted by: Lambchop | December 25, 2016 10:44 AM    Report this comment

My dog got Parvo. He recovered butt nearly died from next round of shots that vet insisted he needed for the second distemper component as it can't be given separate to Parvo virus.

Now I'm a once and done with vaccines.

Posted by: Phastco | December 24, 2016 2:06 PM    Report this comment

I don't think that this is quite correct. The successful vaccine for Canine Distemper was released in 1933.
"On 4 February 1933 The Field, England's leading magazine of country sport and life, ran a twelve-page special supplement celebrating the conquest of canine distemper. 'Saving the lives of our dogs' told the story of a decade-long effort to develop a preventive vaccine against 'the scourge of dogdom' " in 'Saving the lives of our dogs': the development of canine distemper vaccine in interwar Britain.
It was certainly around in the 1950s when I was a girl.
I think the difference was more that most people did not bother to vaccinate their puppies.

Posted by: Jenny H | December 22, 2016 9:22 PM    Report this comment

Hi Martha, this was just a blog post. We have lots and lots of articles on vaccinations, including titer tests, in the magazine. Here are links to just a few. And all back issues are available to current subscribers. -- Nancy Kerns, Editor





Posted by: WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns | December 22, 2016 4:55 PM    Report this comment

As a dog lover and as director of a non profit canine organization I know all too well how important vaccinations are but was sorry to see that this article fell short of the whole story. Vaccinations can be harmful and often don't offer the protection the owner thinks when given prior to 14 weeks as the maternal protection of the mother interferes with the vaccinations. Studies are showing that puppies that have been vaccinated for parvo have not much more if any better protection against parvo than puppies that have not been vaccinated. We follow Dr. Jean Dodds' (one of the leading animal immunologists in the world) vaccination protocol - vaccinating ONLY once between 14 and 16 weeks and only with a 3 way shot. We then titer in 3 week to make sure that antibodies were made and after that we suggest a titer test done every 3 years with revaccination given ONLY if necessary and then only that one vaccine. Vaccines are shown to often last the lifetime of the dog. We are seeing that in our rescue organization... With the fairly new in house titer tests like VacciCheck the test are now inexpensive with the results in 20 minutes. There is no longer any question that our vaccination protocol has lead to many health problems with our dogs, putting them at risk for many diseases and early death. Yes, we are thankful for vaccines but they need to be used with caution as they are not risk free and dogs should never be randomly vaccinated. This article falls shout of telling the whole story and missed the opportunity to help educate the public with necessary yet responsible vaccinating advise for our dogs. Martha Leary, Star-Mar Rescue, Wooster, OH.

Posted by: Mleary | December 22, 2016 3:08 PM    Report this comment

Thank you very much for this article. I have worked in the veterinary industry for 25 years and have seen dogs die of both parvo and distemper (thankfully not rabies...) I live in an "anti vaxxer" area, both for dogs and children. Ironically, part of the reason people in our area are so comfortable not vaccinating their pets is that we don't SEE parvo and distemper often where we live. Why? Because of vaccines. If you talk to my colleagues in lower income areas, in the emergency clinics, and the shelters, they will tell a different tale. These diseases are still out there and they still kill pets.
Vaccines have come a LONG way from the 60s both in safety, efficacy, and longevity (lack of efficacy may have been part of the reason vaccinated dogs still died in the 60s). I remember the Feline Leukemia vaccine in its infancy being only about 50% effective and we saw that terrible disease everywhere. Today, it is as effective as a vaccine can be, and I haven't seen an FeLV case in ages (note that we are a higher-income area with fewer "strays").
I am a self-described crazy dog person and I want the best for my dogs. With my knowledge and (too many) years of experience, I still vaccinate my dogs. I vaccinate for what they need (based on area and lifestyle), do titers when appropriate, but I never neglect these easy preventatives.

Posted by: Juliette V | December 22, 2016 11:33 AM    Report this comment

My first puppy, Peppy, died of distemper somewhere in the late 1950s. We only had him a couple of weeks when he started vomiting. He was very young. My parents took him to the vet and I believe he was euthanized. To this day, close to 60 years later, I recall how much I had loved walking with him scampering behind me and how sad I was, when he was gone.

Posted by: Carolyn M | December 22, 2016 10:46 AM    Report this comment

I work with a rescue group near Chicago and we get a lot of our dogs from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. We have had a huge number of puppies come down with Parvovirus this year. We were able to save some, but some we weren't. Parvo is one of those diseases it seems like you never hear of and then suddenly there is case after case of it. At least for us there is. Your mention of low vaccine areas helps me understand a little better why we might be encountering this horrible disease repeatedly. Thank you.

Posted by: Stephenie D | December 22, 2016 10:42 AM    Report this comment

Same thing (distemper outbreak) happened at the Ft. Worth TX shelter several years ago. What was worse is that shelter personnel did not initially know what was happening and adopted out sick dogs, and then they denied that there was a problem. Unfortunately puppies and young dogs that spend their first months of life on the street are more at risk for having distemper when they first get to the shelter and only quarantine will prevent spread of the disease in the shelter.

Posted by: westielover | December 22, 2016 10:22 AM    Report this comment

The shelter here just had a distemper outbreak. Over 50 dogs got sick and has pretty much bankrupted the shelter. It all started when 1 pregnant dog came in that they didn't vaccinate. It's not really clear why all the dogs weren't vaccinated immediately.

Posted by: snupnjake | December 22, 2016 9:46 AM    Report this comment

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