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Pearl and her Distemper Puppies

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Pearl and her puppies is a bit of a shelter tragedy, and we recommend keeping your tissues handy. Pearl came into our shelter with her eight one-day-old puppies in November of 2021. Unfortunately, before Pearl arrived at our shelter, she was unvaccinated and exposed to a contagious and potentially deadly disease called distemper. Here in Nebraska, distemper is carried by dogs, coyotes and raccoons and since she was unvaccinated she was unprotected. While we vaccinate on intake at our shelter, the exposure had already happened and there was nothing we could do to change the following course of events. 

Two weeks after arrival, Pearl started demonstrating upper respiratory signs like sneezing and eye discharge. For adults this is a pretty typical presentation for a contagious disease we call kennel cough that is very common in shelters, including ours, so we treated, unknowing of the challenges that laid in wait. Two weeks later Pearl was still showing signs of upper respiratory illness and also her puppies started showing similar though more advanced signs, they had goopy eyes and could barely open them. We revisited the vet and changed medications for both mom and puppies, still not knowing the rough road we were already travelling down.

A few days before Christmas, Pearl's foster mom called us with the worst news, one of Pearl's puppies was very ill, vomiting and having seizures. At this point the puppies were barely 5 weeks old and neurological problems in young puppies are notoriously hard to diagnose and are rarely treatable. We rushed the puppy to the emergency hospital in Lincoln closest to our foster and despite our broken hearts, our only option was to relieve suffering her through humane euthanasia.

While we are committed to saving every life we can, we will never allow an animal in our care to suffer to death if there are no treatment options. On Christmas Eve, we got another call from Pearl's foster mom, a second puppy was having a seizure. We rushed that one to the vet as well, steeling ourselves for what was about to happen. Much like with the first puppy, we had no treatment options, but unlike the first one, we no longer thought this was a coincidence. We authorized an autopsy to figure out what was happening to these puppies and within a day we had our answer and it wasn't good- Distemper.

Distemper is a disease that mimics several other diseases like kennel cough, parvovirus and even rabies, and doesn't always react the same. The great news is vaccines in adult dogs are very protective, the bad news, is obviously Pearl was never vaccinated, and her puppies were too young to be vaccinated.

For adult dogs with healthy immune systems, distemper can look like a viral cold, like it was with Pearl. But for puppies with less developed immune systems, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, neurologic signs and ultimately death. Our hearts were broken knowing that the puppies may continue to die one by one, but after a long conversation with Pearl's amazing foster, we knew we had to give them time to try and fight it off. If they couldn't make it, we knew they would leave this world warm, loved and cared for, but if there was a chance they could make it, we had to give it to them.

Sadly, we lost two more puppies, but we did what we promised, loved them and cared for them for their whole life, until the very end. Through our tears and heartbreak, we kept expecting the worst, but days went by and then weeks and the remaining 4 puppies started getting better. They stopped having upper respiratory signs and finally after 6 weeks, our vet cleared them for adoption!

We didn't think there would be a happily ever after to be told in this story. What started as Pearl and her 8 puppies ended as Pearl and her 4 miracle fighter babies, but unlike other shelters that never would have sent them to foster, or wouldn't have treated after diagnosis, we know that they were exactly where they needed to be here at our shelter. We wish we could go back in time and keep Pearl from being exposed before arriving at our shelter, but we can't we can only hope that one person vaccinated their dog after this cautionary tale. We also take comfort knowing 5 families are a little more complete because of the challenging road we decided to take.

Every animal coming into our family deserves a fighting chance and we are committed to giving it to them. 

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