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Q: Does my dog really need a distemper vaccination? Dogs don't really get that anymore, do they?

A: Distemper used to be the No. 1 killer of dogs. And while it may not be as common as it was in the bad old days before a vaccine was developed, it definitely still exists. In the past year, there have been distemper outbreaks at shelters in California, Tennessee, Maryland and Missouri.

There's good reason for distemper being one of the vaccines all dogs should receive. More than half the adult dogs that get distemper die. In puppies that get the disease, the death rate can be as high as 80 percent. When we see distemper, it's usually in dogs that haven't been vaccinated.

Signs of distemper include fever, listlessness, eye and nasal discharge, a dry cough, vomiting and diarrhea. Some dogs survive distemper but are partially or totally paralyzed. Others that survive can suffer irreparable damage to their senses of sight, smell and hearing, as well as a weakened immune system that can make them more susceptible to pneumonia.

The distemper virus, which is highly contagious, is usually transmitted through contact with an infected dog's mucus, watery secretions from the eyes or nose, urine or feces. It can also be airborne or carried on the bottoms of shoes. Wild canines such as coyotes or foxes can spread the distemper virus. A healthy but unvaccinated dog can contract distemper without ever coming in physical contact with an infected animal.

Puppies and young adult dogs are most susceptible to infection, but it's not unheard of for older dogs to become infected.