Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Loving a Distemper Dog

Spartacus has gotten himself into some very unpleasant situations. He's our reactive dog, and he can be an embarrassment, a hassle, a liability, a real pain in the ass. People think we named him Spartacus because we wanted an aggressive warrior dog. Little do they realize, Spartacus earned his gladiator title with honor, fighting for his life. And if you know his story, we think it's impossible to blame the poor little guy for being a bit troubled. 

He knew far too much suffering as a baby puppy. When a good samaritan picked him up off the side of the road in Miami, he was in rough shape.

Now Spartacus is all grown up, his fur is silky, his eyes are serene, and he's handsome as ever. But there are things about Sparty that make him very unique. Like his head twitch. At first glance you might not catch it, especially if he's doing zoomies past you. But once he settles down, it's impossible to miss. 


He has had this head twitch since before we adopted him when he was seven months old, almost three years ago. It is the result of permanent damage to his central nervous system from the canine distemper virus. It doesn't seem to get better or worse, it just is. His neurologist said even when he's under anesthesia, his twitch will go on twitching. We have ascertained that Spartacus caught, suffered, survived, and passed the distemper virus long before his rescuer changed his life and took him in. He was not an active carrier of the virus by the time he saw a vet, indicating that the worst of it was behind him.

According to the Baker Institute for Animal Health, canine distemper is estimated to be fatal in 50% of cases affecting adult dogs, and in 80% of cases affecting puppies. Spartacus, our special fighter, was one of the lucky few to make it out alive after weeks of respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological distress. For all we know, he suffered for weeks alone as a stray puppy, dehydrated, vomiting, having bloody diarrhea, coughing, enduring seizures. What's worse is the possibility that someone threw him out on the street when he started showing signs of sickness and left him to fend for himself. We'll never know the details of his past, we just do our best to ensure his future in a safe and loving environment.

There is no cure for canine distemper, and although Spartacus doesn't carry the virus anymore and can't infect other dogs, we're told the disease can continue to wreak havoc on him for the rest of his life. The course of the disease is unpredictable. He may develop a seizure disorder or suffer further neurologic damage from the virus as he ages. We hope that Sparty will be spared any more suffering, but we've been taught how to handle a canine seizure in case that day ever comes. He's had a handful of partial mal seizures that were luckily uneventful - just some funky leg shaking that came and went in under a minute. So far nothing alarming, nothing that necessitates medication.

In honor of National Pet Dental Health Month, we can't forget about Sparty's "unique" teeth. That's the nicest way of acknowledging the weird brown icicles we call his chompers. The distemper virus destroyed his ability to form tooth enamel at a cellular level. Because he was a little puppy, he never had a chance to develop normal, pretty teeth. This condition is known as enamel hypoplasia. His teeth are still totally functional for now, and we try to get on brushing. Generally we rely on the plaque removal from Sparty chewing on raw meaty bones. Next month he is getting a full dental cleaning done with the veterinarian. 

And the real kicker, Sparty's nightmares. Spartacus has little episodes throughout the night, every night, of trembling and whimpering accompanied by rapid breathing. Sometimes his eyes roll back and his legs jerk around a little. Even our perfectly healthy pup Delilah gets the occasional bad dream and gets shaken up similarly, so we don't think it's a neurological issue with Spartacus. Just the result of a very stressful first few months. The cure is always the same: petting him, whispering "it's OK Spartacus" no matter how late it is. If he's having a particularly tormented night, we cuddle him through it and fall asleep to the clicking sensation of his twitching head. No matter what any trainer advises, Sparty always has a guaranteed place in our bed. 

It's possible distemper contributed to his anxious and reactive nature toward other dogs. Maybe not. He's making so much progress with training, we don't believe his reactivity is medical in nature. All we know is we're so lucky to have such a special dog in our lives, behavior issues included. We're so grateful that Spartacus had the will to fight for his life. We try to reward him everyday for sticking around and just being Spartacus. And when we're feeling down in the dumps, we look to Spartacus for inspiration, because in our eyes he embodies perseverance. And even though his demons come to haunt him at night, we think he's a pretty happy dog. 

When we first brought him to a dog neurologist, she told us love would make a big difference in his outcome. Three years and loads of love later, he's still cruisin on by. Love definitely didn't hurt. And the love he gives in return makes it all worthwhile. 

Do you have a dog who survived distemper or has other health issues that make it unique?
We'd love to hear from other folks whose pets are also survivors fighting the good fight! 


  1. Sparty's past is just heartbreaking. I'm so glad he found his way to you - what a wonderful story of healing.

  2. What a story. I'm so glad that you guys found each other. That video is really interesting... like you said in your comment on the head tremor post, it's a relief that he's unaware/unaffected by it. I look forward to following his story as you write it!!

  3. Thanks Maggie! We really enjoy reading your blog as well, and hope Cooper's tremors are not causing him any pain. Hopefully you will find some answers eventually. We also empathize with your ongoing journey with Lucas' reactivity, and look forward to hearing more about that!