ELGIN, SC (WIS) - It's a virus that looks just like rabies, and it's just as lethal for your dog. It's called "distemper" -- a viral illness in dogs that doesn't have a cure, and there's an outbreak of it in Kershaw County.
"It's airborne," veterinarian Dr. Wendy King said. "It can go from one cage to the next and they don't even have to touch each other. So what happens is if any of these pets in quarantine are in the same area, they can spread the disease."
King, who works at Elgin's Spears Creek Veterinary Clinic, says the virus hasn't been prevalent in almost 20-30 years since the vaccine became readily available. Distemper presents first with a green discharge from the dog's nose, then a fever and lethargic behavior. Then, the virus invades the nervous system as the animal begins to exhibit neurological symptoms like staggering, trembling, and seizures.
These symptoms look just like rabies. The difference between rabies and distemper is that distemper cannot be contracted by humans, while humans can get rabies.
"If the dog gets distemper, 80 to 90 percent of them are fatal cases," King said. "There is no treatment for it, and if they survive it, they have permanent neurological damage. The problem is, there's always going to be a little bit in the wild. Because distemper is in canines -- or 'canids.' So you've got your foxes, your coyotes, and even raccoons can get it. So it's always going to be out there."
According to DHEC, every year about 124 animals test positive for rabies in South Carolina. It's not possible to tell whether a dog has contracted rabies or distemper until after the dog has died and tests are done.
The distemper outbreak has been seen in Lancaster County as well. The Lancaster County Animal Shelter closed temporarily in early May as a result of a distemper outbreak at the shelter.
Puppies get a set of four distemper vaccines starting at 6 weeks old. They get their next distemper vaccines at 9, 12, and 15 weeks. The rabies vaccine begins at 15 weeks.
King said preventing distemper in your pets is simple: make sure your dogs get their annual vaccinations.
"I want people to be aware that these are out there, and both of these diseases are preventable," King said.