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Code Red: Distemper Outbreak in Harris County

Be sure your dog's Distemper vaccination is up-to-date as Harris County is having an outbreak of this disease.

HCPH Veterinary Public Health has issued an urgent alert regarding the rise of distemper in the Harris County pet population. The Harris County Animal Shelter has enacted Code Red Protocols which include strict isolation and quarantine of sick and exposed animals and enhanced bio-security for visitors and staff. What makes this disease difficult to identify in shelters is the long incubation period: dogs who have contracted Canine Distemper can shed the virus for weeks to months.

Here is HCPH - VPH's news release, June 25, 2017:

The Harris County Animal Shelter has recently seen an increase in the Canine Distemper virus in our shelter dogs.

The shelter is aware of 10 cases of Canine Distemper. The dogs in question were in the shelter during the period of June 15 – July 14. Our on-going investigation is tracing any possible exposures to these dogs while they were in the shelter and contacting adopters, rescues, and fosters who now have these dogs. The dogs that may have been exposed, either in the shelter or in foster care are being tested for the virus. We are taking additional steps to identify infected dogs upon intake and implement proper quarantine and isolation procedures.

“Although we vaccinate all animals as they enter our shelter, we have no information about their health history. They may be shedding the infectious Canine Distemper virus without showing any signs of disease until days later. At that point, they may have already exposed other dogs to the disease.” said Dr. Michael White, director of the Harris County Animal Shelter.

Canine Distemper is a highly contagious, potentially deadly disease caused by a virus which attacks the respiratory (eye, nose, throat), nervous system (brain and nerves) and/or the gastrointestinal system (stomach and intestines). It can also lead to life-long damage in some recovered animals. Young puppies and dogs that have not been vaccinated or which have a weak immune system are most at risk. However, any dog can become infected and sick with the disease.

Canine Distemper virus is spread from animal to animal or in the air. Since our shelter was built in 1986, it consistently holds many more animals than it was designed for due to lack of adequate space. These conditions may cause diseases to spread more easily

Symptoms include: 

  • Runny eyes and nose (respiratory signs)

  • Fever

  • Coughing

  • Diarrhea and vomiting

  • Depression

  • Muscle twitching or seizures

  • The skin on the paws and nose can also harden

These symptoms usually develop in 1-2 weeks after exposure, but it can be as long as 4-5 weeks or even more. There is no cure for distemper and the only medical option is to treat the symptoms as they occur. Many sick dogs require extensive treatment and care in a veterinary hospital. Once nervous system signs appear (seizures & muscle twitching), the dog may never recover or may have life-long damage.

Currently vaccinated dogs can still become infected by the Canine Distemper virus, but they only show mild or no signs of the disease. It is important that you follow up on the complete series of vaccinations to help prevent this disease in your new dog or puppy. We highly recommend that you make sure any pets you have in your home are currently vaccinated against this serious disease before bringing home a new pet.

The shelter is taking every precaution possible to end this outbreak of Canine Distemper, including additional disinfecting procedures and revised animal handling procedures. Fortunately, the virus is killed by most disinfectants.

If you adopted a dog from our shelter from June 15 through July 24, 2017, and it is showing any of the described symptoms, please contact the shelter at: 281.999.3191. We can provide consultation, examination, medication(s) and testing as deemed necessary by our veterinary staff at no cost to you.

The Harris County Animal Shelter is part of Veterinary Public Health (VPH), a Division of Harris County Public Health. The Harris County Animal Shelter takes in about 20,000 stray dogs and cats from unincorporated Harris County each year. It also provides shelter, care and adoptions for homeless pets, animal control in neighborhoods, zoonotic disease surveillance, and education on responsible pet ownership.

For additional information on Canine Distemper or dog vaccination protocols, or to update your dog's vaccinations, give us a call at 281.351.7184 or contact us at

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