THE BLOG
12/03/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2014

Researching a New Drug for Canine Distemper

Successful new drugs are rare. Most ideas for new drugs end up being just that: ideas. They either never make it out of the test tube, fail preliminary testing, or prove to be no better than other available therapies. Some may look promising only to be found to cause significant adverse effects. A significant barrier to development involves the profit potential or size of the disease market for a new drug. After all, if there are not enough cases of a disease to make it possible to recoup the expense of approval, many good drugs just languish in the patent office. The problem is even larger for natural therapies as the profit potential is much smaller.

Integrative medicine investigates the use of nutrition, conventional therapies and other forms of healing that have some scientific basis in support of their use. This type of practice involves doing a lot of research, both of traditional literature as well as reading publications far off the beaten path. Integrative doctors even read anthropology literature as we seek knowledge from indigenous cultures that often have a tight knit connection to nature and the resources she provides.

Canine distemper is a killer disease that spreads by simply breathing or touching materials contaminated by the virus. The virus infects all epithelial tissues and is shed in saliva, mucus, urine and stool. It hides in the environment quietly awaiting a susceptible puppy and then strikes with signs of a mild cold. The runny nose and cough progresses until the dog is ravaged by pneumonia and encephalitis. Many dogs die having terrible seizures, and the dogs that are lucky enough to survive are often disabled for life with brain damage, ongoing seizures, nervous tics and skin problems.

Veterinarians are lucky to have effective vaccinations against canine distemper, and the vaccinations work well. Many puppies are protected for life by a simple series of two vaccinations. Because of this many veterinarians and owners never see the disease. It does not get big headlines or have a private foundation with celebrities raising money for a solution, but canine distemper is a killer.

This disease spreads easily in areas with lower education, pet overpopulation and reduced use of vaccines. It is a significant problem in inner cities, animal shelters and pet rescue groups. Its gradual onset allows it to spread rapidly through populations and it is heart breaking to watch dogs suffer death or disability from the disease. Based on the textbooks and poor outcomes anticipated, many veterinarians simply euthanize these dogs. Sadly, practitioners like me that work with rescue groups and animal shelters often see these sort of cases, and sometimes they arrive at our clinic too late to save them.

While vaccination is the best policy, sometimes the disease strikes before a dog receives the vaccination. Animal shelter workers know the devastating toll suffered as they watch newly admitted dogs succumb. In such cases distemper does not need to be a death sentence for a dog. A combination of homeopathic, nutritional, herbal and conventional drugs and support often does the trick. The course of treatment is long and arduous, though. Staying up all night with a puppy crying from encephalitis is exhausting, especially when there is no guarantee of survival or total recovery.

There may be new hope for this disease. Recently, I have come across an experimental drug from a new company in Florida. Holistic doctors have used this medication for other viral infections with interesting results and now this drug that originates from a natural substance is working its way through the FDA application and approval process, which can take years. This drug, currently code-named PVX, is an anti-viral of natural origin, and veterinarians who are using it have seen many cases where it worked.

Once such case was a rescued Chow Chow named Sheena that was adopted in June of this year. Her new owner loved Sheena, but she soon begin showing signs of severe illness including fever, ocular and nasal discharges and severe twitching of her front paws to the degree that she could not walk. After failure of conventional therapies including support, antibiotics, fluids and anticonvulsants, she was referred to me through a rescue group I had worked with before. His regular veterinarian was very supportive of that process because she had nothing else to offer and wanted to see Sheena have a chance.

As I looked at Sheena, the case really didn't look good. After explaining the serious nature of this infection, we confirmed it with a blood test that detects virus DNA. We advised of the experimental, humane access FDA trial and we began therapy. Darren, Sheena's new owner, was able to perform most of her treatment at home. He returned weekly to our office. We saw fast results as Sheena started eating again and her other symptoms lessened. Since most cases like this would take weeks to show improvement, we were all ecstatic.

Over the 4th of July weekend we had a scare. Sheena stopped eating and became very lethargic. We intervened quickly with additional doses of PVX at twice the normal dosage. Darren was great in this process, he gave Sheena her medicine daily as required, and kept in touch with me regularly by email, phone and regular visits to my hospital over the course of the six weeks or so of treatment.

The story does have a happy ending. Sheena survived and is with us today. She still demonstrates a little bit of involuntary movement in her left front paw, but it does not affect her quality of life.

This was not a simple therapy. It took full cooperation of Sheena's guardian, and regular visits to my clinic. Sheena's seizures were controlled almost immediately with homeopathic medicine (Belladonna Homaccord). Her ravaged body responded to nutritional care that supported her organs and immune system and helped drain the toxins away before they overwhelmed her. It took love enough to ask for more options and persistence to check out things on the Internet, do research in rare literature and dedication to drive Sheena two hours to our clinic. It also took a pioneering spirit to take chances and work with others regardless of the outcome and odds against us.

This drug is still at a very early stage and this year participating veterinarians have treated over 50 cases with an incredible 80 percent success rate. It's possible in the future the process might be simpler and cheaper, but the bottom line is this drug and other rare therapies may become a new tool in our integrative arsenal against a disease in our canine friends which has often been a death sentence in the past. And who knows what other conditions may benefit once that research is done.