Canine Distemper Virus

Surviving canine distemper virus meaghan colville cincinnati animal CARE

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Surviving Canine Distemper Virus 

By Meaghan Colville
Shelter Director, Cincinnati Animal CARE
(Best Friends Executive Leadership Certification Graduate, Cohort 2)


“Ohio doesn’t get distemper.”

That sentence proved to be very wrong. A little over a year ago, on April 2nd, 2023, we confirmed the presence of CDV (canine distemper virus) at the Hamilton County animal shelter in Cincinnati. I got a pit in my stomach as our Medical Director, Amanda Gilbert, gave me the dreaded news. At that moment, I think we both knew we were about to enter one of the most challenging periods in our young organization’s history. 

Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) in Ohio

For months, we had suspected it. All the boxes checked. We had noticed a slow, steady uptick in respiratory illness, we had dogs needing extended treatment after 10-14 day rounds were not working, and we had dogs developing neurological issues. In January of that year, after we became suspicious of one sick dog, our medical team sent out testing but it came back negative. We sent out test after test for two months and we kept getting negative returns. As a shelter who had not seen CDV and knowing how rare it is in northern states, we thought ‘it feels like CDV but if the tests are negative, maybe it’s not’. During this unsettling time with an unknown illness, we did our best to isolate and treat. 

Finally, in late March, two months after sending out our first test, we got a tip. The adopter of a dog adopted in early February let us know that her dog had died of CDV. This was the first positive test of a dog who had been in our care. We immediately sent out more tests but this time to the lab that she had used. On April 2nd we confirmed CDV was in our building. 

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Our Response

By the time we were able to confirm, the virus had been spreading for 3 months and it was everywhere. We got positive tests from every single area of our building and in total were facing an almost 40% positivity rate of those tested. Our leadership team held an emergency meeting and developed a plan. We had a big decision in front of us. 

Would we humanely end the lives of dogs infected or try to treat them?

Within hours of receiving the positive test our medical team had made contact with Dr. Cynda Crawford from the University of Florida who specializes in diagnostics and management of respiratory infections in shelter dogs. This connection was invaluable as Dr. Crawford joined our team from afar and would guide us through the illness for months to come. She presented the facts of CDV, helped us begin the process of contact tracing, and laid out our options. 

CDV has a 85% survival rate if treated. That was all our leadership team needed to hear. We decided we would fight this virus and give every dog a chance. In order to treat, we would need to isolate. In order to isolate, we needed more space. In order to have more space, we needed additional facilities. Within 48 hours, we had shut down our main shelter to intake and opened two additional facilities. One for new intakes and one for CDV positive treatments. We split our team into 3 and got to work. 


canine distemper virus cincinnati animal care

Our Results

Our 3-building operation ran from April 4th through the middle of August when we confirmed our final negative test. This strategy was not an easy one as our team was pushed mentally and physically every day and stretched across 3 facilities but it paid off. In the end, our team saved 75% of infected dogs. Our medical team performed 482 PCR tests and lost only 18 dogs to the disease and another 9 to behavior associated with living in isolation. This was an exhausting period of time and one that we hoped we would never see again. We reflected, made changes and have been much better off since. 

This April, we confirmed CDV in our shelter again but this time we were ready. Since last year, our isolation space and protocols are at a much higher level and we’ve been able to manage it in-house with little disruption to operations. 


canine distemper virus cincinnati animal care

What we Learned

Our organization believes that adversity is the best way to learn. Although CDV was extremely challenging and losing dogs was difficult, we have been able to fine tune our plan and operations to handle and manage widespread illness. Here are four tips we hope will help you if and more likely, when, you find yourself facing a deadly virus:

1. Find Mentors

Other shelters have gone through whatever illness you are facing. Find them and learn from them. Although Ohio has very little experience with CDV, we were fortunate to be connected nationally and receive assistance and support from people around the country. 

2. Isolate, Isolate, Isolate

As we all face more and more crowding in our shelters, we cannot compromise isolation space. This was a lesson we learned the hard way but now have strict protocols in place when we see animals showing signs of illness. 

3. Assess your resources

We are the first to acknowledge how fortunate we were to have the support of our community, our county administrator and our Board that afforded us the opportunity to open two new facilities for 5 months. Not everyone can do that and that’s ok. Do as much as you can with what you have. There is no wrong choice as long as you are doing your best to save as many as possible. 

4. Treat (it’s treatable!) but know when to stop

Medically, we can go to the ends of the earth to treat illness but we recognize that there are limits to what we reasonably can and should do. For us, we draw a hard line on CDV symptoms that develop into neurologic issues, respiratory that requires oxygen, and gastrointestinal issues. If a dog presents with all 3, we stop. It’s important to assess your capabilities and resources to set your parameters. 


Our ability to face CDV head on was the direct result of the resolute attitude of our organization, county and community. What I am most proud of is our team. Without warning and almost overnight, they were spread across three buildings, working hot Ohio summers wearing PPE, and following grueling testing and treatment schedules to save as many animals as they could. To date, just the mention of “CDV” brings back bad memories to many of our staff but in leadership we remind our team that although we can’t control when it arrives, we can control our response. Cincinnati Animal CARE is more prepared than ever to handle anything that comes our way, no matter how unusual, because even Ohio can get distemper.

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