The Fan Hitch Volume 3, Number 4, August 2001

Newsletter of the Inuit Sled Dog

Table of Contents

Guest Editorial
Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Dr. Lucien Ockovsky
The First Official ISDI Gathering
Nunavut Quest 2001 Diary
The Song of the Glacier
An Arctic "Fish Story"
Defining ISD Purity
Distemper in the North
Brucellosis in Arctic Marine Mammals: A threat to team dogs?
Poem: But, I must be dreaming, that's years ago...
Book Review: the latest Coppinger book
Janice Howls: Who Belongs in the ISDI?
Page from a Behaviour Notebook: Inuit Dog Stereotypes
Frankly Speaking: Zombies

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              Editor: Sue Hamilton
              Webmaster: Mark Hamilton
The Fan Hitch Website and Publications of the Inuit Sled Dog– the quarterly Journal (retired in 2018) and PostScript – are dedicated to the aboriginal landrace traditional Inuit Sled Dog as well as related Inuit culture and traditions. 

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Distemper Outbreak in Nunavut

by Julia Krizan

On December 27, 2000, a third seriously sick dog was found in Iqaluit. Within a few days, a public warning went out informing all dog and dog team owners in the community that we were possibly at the beginning of a new distemper outbreak. The last devastating outbreak occurred ten years ago and wiped out a large portion of sled dogs in the Baffin. In order to avoid future epidemics the Territorial Government established a distemper vaccination program (the same as exists for rabies) responsible for supplying all Nunavut communities with free vaccines, syringes and needles. In most communities, wildlife officers are trained to vaccinate the dogs.

While distemper no longer poses a threat to dogs in southern Canada mainly due to the availability of effective vaccines, it periodically causes epidemics in northern areas. For instance, a small outbreak occurred in 1997 and apparently affected only the communities of Repulse Bay, Kugaaruk and Taloyoak. If such outbreaks do not occur in the South, why does this disease still take such a high toll in the North? What is the difference? The answer is not simple. There are several factors that play a role in the manifestation and distribution of the disease. While the vaccines are distributed and are free for all dog owners, there is no law that actually forces them to vaccinate their dogs. In some cases, teams are kept at a distance from the communities or in outpost camps where it is difficult to deliver the vaccines. In other cases, team owners refuse to have their dogs vaccinated (for a variety of reasons that are hard to understand). Another factor contributing to the high incidence of the disease is the number of stray dogs in most communities. Nobody feels responsible for these dogs and their pups. These unvaccinated dogs act as a potential host for the distemper virus in which it can establish itself and spread throughout the community. 

How does the virus reach the North? There are two possible avenues. First, the disease may be introduced by dogs brought in by visitors from the South. Second, wildlife carrying the virus often come close to town and transmit the infection to local, unvaccinated dogs. I mentioned that distemper no longer poses a threat in the South but it does not mean that the disease has been eradicated there. In regions where the majority of the dogs are vaccinated, the potential for outbreaks is diminished. An insufficiently vaccinated dog (e. g. because of overdue vaccination) can show such mild signs of the disease that the owner is not aware of the cause of the  dog's sickness. If such a dog arrives in a northern community and infects unvaccinated dogs, the result is devastating. Unfortunately, the virus is highly resistant and can spread by air or by shared dog dishes or even by people carrying the virus on their clothes or boots after handling an infected dog. Public education is an important factor in preventing the spreading of the disease.

Foxes and wolves are known to carry the canine distemper virus and both come close to the communities during winter. Foxes are usually found in the communities as soon as temperatures drop. Again, unvaccinated dogs are the victims.

Regarding the most recent outbreak in Nunavut, we are certain that it started in Iqaluit, even though a few weeks earlier a team in Kugluktuk was shot because the dogs showed signs of the disease. After the initial cases, more and more dogs got sick and some had to be put down. In the beginning, only stray and unvaccinated pet dogs showed signs of distemper. Not all infected dogs die. Some show only mild symptoms. Yet many weeks later, the disease killed more than fifty dogs in Iqaluit, among them sled dogs of two unvaccinated teams. In the first stages of the outbreak in early January, 2001, the first sick dogs were reported from Kimmirut, a hundred kilometers to the south of Iqaluit. It was about that time that the first positive lab results came back. In the following months, the virus spread to Cape Dorset, Hall Beach and Iglulik. This year's Nunavut Quest was affected by the disease. Several drivers had to drop out because their dogs became sick, with many of them dying, despite race regulations that all dogs had to be vaccinated. 

At the same time, the disease spread eastward to Qikiqtarjuaq and Pond Inlet where diseased dogs were reported in March and April. Meanwhile, dogs in Iqaluit were still dying and there was no end in sight. In the central region, distemper reached Rankin Inlet and was officially confirmed in the Northwest Territories. At the time of this writing (August, 2001), only a few new cases are being reported, indicating that the outbreak is slowing down. Several hundred dogs (strays, pet dogs and sled dogs) have died across the territory. This is a sad picture, especially when we consider that most of these deaths were preventable with proper vaccination. Vaccines and other supplies were available.

What can be done to prevent future outbreaks? Dog owners who have been caught by surprise can be reached by an enhanced public education program. There are plans to distribute posters and brochures similar to existing rabies materials to the communities. Unfortunately, there will always be some dog team owners who will refuse to vaccinate their dogs, and we will continue to have stray dogs that are hard to control. If we are able to reduce the number of unvaccinated dogs in the communities, part of the battle might be won and the next outbreak might kill fewer dogs.

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