The Last Days of Tex Ritter: A Cautionary Tale

 

I first met little Tex Ritter during my volunteer “dog socialization” activities at a Bay Area rescue shelter. A sweet and happy 10-month-old German Shepherd, Tex had been rescued from a Central Valley pound because he was clearly a very adoptable companion who simply had not been given enough time to find his new family.

At some point before arriving in the Bay Area, Tex had contracted the distemper virus, which meant that he could not be offered for adoption until the shelter’s veterinary staff had treated and cured him. Tex was a very sick boy for a while, with severe gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms. After a week or two of treatment, he perked up and was only occasionally coughing and sneezing.

It was obvious to me that Tex was a very special little dog. Although somewhat timid in some new circumstances, he loved everyone he met, was very polite (for a 10-month-old), and all through his illness never regressed on his housebreaking. So when the shelter emailed their corps of volunteer foster parents to see if anyone could give Tex some relief from shelter life for the final weeks of his recuperation, my wife and I took him in.

Tex blossomed in our home. He bonded and played happily with Schatzi, our little Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, and he loved to just “veg out” with us on the couch. During outings in our neighborhood, he had a tail wag, lick, or snuggle for everyone he met.

But only about a week after he came to us, Tex underwent a sudden and inexplicable behavioral change. He became aggressively hostile toward everyone other than our family, even neighbors he had liked just days before.  He then became wobbly on his feet.

The distemper virus had flared up again, in Tex’s brain this time, as manifested by these changes to his personality and balance. The shelter vet subsequently told me that they see this neurological involvement in perhaps one or two dogs a year who arrive at the shelter with distemper. Once in the brain, the distemper is irreversible and progressive.

It’s surprising how attached one can become to a dog in such a short time. My wife and I had had a bittersweet parting with a prior foster dog, but at least we knew he was leaving us to join his new forever family. Losing Tex in this horrible way was just devastating to us. We were especially saddened that this terrible disease not only ended Tex’s life much too soon, but also deprived a family somewhere of this special dog’s loving presence.

It occurred to me that if Tex had only been given a distemper immunization at the appropriate time during his early weeks, he could have had a long and happy life. Because he didn’t, this sweet boy is lost to us forever.

I am aware that there is an ongoing controversy about immunizing dogs. However, my research indicates that there is virtual unanimity in the professional animal care community about the need for initial puppy series immunizations and a one-year booster for distemper. The main disagreement seems to swirl around the advisability of ongoing annual re-immunizations, which was not germane in Tex’s case. 

A detailed article on this topic appears on the American Animal Hospital Association’s website at www.aahanet.org/PublicDocuments/VaccineGuidelines06Revised.pdf. It states right up front, “Vaccination is a medical decision and a medical procedure that should be individualized based on the risk and lifestyle of the individual animal”. True, but I can’t conceive of an instance in which an initial puppy series and one-year booster for distemper would not be appropriate, unless a dog has an adverse reaction of some kind. 

A dog guardian who avoids immunization might truly believe that his pet will never come into contact with other animals, but what if unforeseen circumstances require him to give the dog up for adoption at some point? If that came to pass, the animal would likely enter a shelter, rescue agency, or foster situation, which brings with it a high risk of exposure to a whole host of nasty canine diseases. It would be unconscionable to subject an un-immunized dog to this risk.

Perhaps Tex’s original owner was unaware of the widely available no-cost or low-cost immunization options. But whether it was a conscious decision or simple negligence that prevented the immunization is beside the point. The end result is the same – a vibrant, loving puppy’s life was senselessly snuffed out.

The moral of Tex’s story: Protect your pup by having him immunized. It’s a simple procedure that can literally save his life – and your life will be infinitely richer as a result.

Joe Navarro is happily retired in the Orinda hills with his wife Billie and their two spoiled little rescue dogs, Schatzi and Moe.