Can your pet dog make you sick? Multiple Sclerosis and Canine Distemper Virus

Student guest post by Raj Nair.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory demyelinating disease that affects the central nervous system (CNS) consisting of the brain and the spinal cord [1]. It is thought to be an autoimmune disease since individual's immune system attacks their own healthy tissues [1]. However, studies to ascertain triggering factors such as genetic, environmental, and infectious causes are still in progress [2]. So one wonders "Who is more susceptible to develop MS" Literature reveals that typically people between 20 and 50 years of age are commonly diagnosed with MS, affects more women than men, and Caucasians of Northern European ancestry are more prone to develop this disease [1, 2]. Knowledge on the pathophysiology of this disease is that immune system attacks myelin, which forms a protective coat surrounding the nerve fibers of the brain and the spinal cord [2]. The myelin sheath can be compared to insulation around an electrical wire. Loss of this protective layer impedes transmission of nerve signals [1]. Consequences of this damaged connection are the spectrum of symptoms seen in MS. Some of these symptoms are blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, extreme fatigue, tremors, loss of sensation or odd sensations (pin and needle sensations), slurred speech, blindness, difficulty concentrating, poor memory and judgment, and in severe cases paralysis [1]. However, every person is wired differently and so these symptoms are not consistently seen in all patients with MS [1]. Considering all of the above facts my guess is symptoms may vary depending on a person's immune system and the external or other internal factors governing their immune system. The disease is rarely fatal and most of the people are only mildly affected. Moreover, most of the affected people remit spontaneously [3].

Why should anyone care.... Because MS is unpredictable [1,3], there is no universal cure for the disease [3], can be a chronic condition [1], possibility of disease recurrence [4], and the most important being 'a single cause' for the disease has not been identified. As in all diseases with multiple interacting causes, in MS too there is no single pathogen or environment to complete its disease triad. Evidence has it that the disease is more common in Northern America and Canada demonstrating a north-south gradient [5]. Migration studies have established that risk for acquiring MS remains unchanged for those who move from a high prevalence area after age 15, while risk decreased for those who moved at an earlier age [5]. In addition, the genetic angle has been studied by conducting twin studies and studies on specific types of genes. Results yielded prove that genetics can lead to an increase in MS susceptibility but probably not cause MS [5]. In order to make more sense of all the above susceptibility factors and with my interest in infectious causes of diseases, I decided to probe into existing infectious perspectives on MS.

History has it that in 1868, Jean Marie Charcot described the first human demyelinating disease, Multiple Sclerosis. It was postulated then that the disease was a result of exposure to dampness or injuries or emotional stress. However, in the era of microbiological advances, one of Charcot's students postulated an infectious etiology for MS [7]. Moreover, the CNS pathology and presence of IgG antibodies and oligoclonal bands are known to be consistent with an infectious or immune mediated neurological disorder [6]. Several infectious agents such as Epstein Barr virus, Canine Distemper virus (CDV), measles virus, Chlamydia pneumoniae, Varicella, Human Herpesvirus-6 (HHV-6), and mumps virus have been associated with MS. Viruses win hands down against bacteria in having a strong association with MS. Studies have a tilt towards a viral cause of MS due to the following reasons: low concordance of MS in monozygotic twins similar to what was seen in paralytic poliomyelitis (also a viral infection), spontaneous viral models of CNS demyelination, and increased titers of viral antibodies in MS patients (particularly measles virus). However, these associations can only be strengthened using criteria such as consistency of association across studies, biological plausibility, temporal association, specificity and dose -response relation (epidemiologists know these are the Bradford-Hills criteria!) I will briefly attempt to establish the causal role of CDV in development of MS. Reason I chose this virus? I lost my pet dog to Old Dog Encephalitis (ODE) due to chronic CDV infection. Now I am left thinking 'Am I or any of my family member's ideal candidates for developing MS later in life?"

CDV is an RNA virus belonging to the family of Paramyxoviridiae, is closely related to the measles virus in humans and is the most neurotropic form of morbillivirus. As observed in the measles virus, CDV can jump species [5] and causes fatal CNS demyelination in animals including primates [9]. However, the catch-22 is that there has not been one virus (measles or CDV) consistently detected in samples from MS patients to prove its causal role. To make things worse, there is a possibility of cross-reaction in testing for CDV and measles virus using molecular techniques in samples obtained from MS patients [10, 13]. Neutralization assay used to identify viral antibodies in patients have shown considerable variation in the CDV/measles antibodies ratio [10, 11]. This implies that there is a potential for CDV to produce undiagnosed or subclinical human infections [10]. To explain MS on the basis of owning dogs per se, several studies have observed that significantly higher proportion of dogs were kept indoors in the colder northern United States as compared to the southern and western region [12]. This may explain the north-south gradient noted in the prevalence of MS. So logically, greater exposure to dogs before onset of neurological symptoms was expected. However, this phenomenon could not be studied well using case-control studies owing to the higher exposure of humans to dogs in Western countries particularly the United States [6].

An interesting aspect studied was exposure to CDV infected dogs. Most of these studies yielded significant exposure to dogs with distemper-like illness at least 5-10 years before development of MS [12, 14]. Historically other studies have shown significant increase in MS incidence rates preceded by a CDV epidemic in locations such as Newfoundland [16], Key West [15], Sitka [17], and the Faroe Islands. One of the most interesting readings was a study conducted to determine environmental changes implemented that may have lead to a reduction in MS incidence in Key West [15]. An animal shelter on the island which was used to dump euthanized dogs was shut down. This change was said to have attributed to reduction in the MS incidence on the island.

With all of the above evidence and in context with the Hills criteria, I will conclude that there is biological plausibility of CDV playing a causal role in development of MS owing to the demyelinating nature of illness caused by this virus. In addition, this virus still causes disease in dogs despite the widespread use of vaccines [18]. This reinforces the possibility of contracting the virus via exposure to infected dogs (zoonotic disease). However, temporal association could not be established between the virus and occurrence of MS. This may be due to the fact that there are other viruses too causing demyelinating diseases such as measles and HIV, which have a well established role in human diseases. Similar symptoms of demyelinating diseases caused due to viruses other than CDV may have resulted in incorrect estimation of MS prevalence or incidence. There is some consistency among case-control studies which demonstrate exposure to CDV or dogs before the development of MS. However, owing to chronic nature of the CDV these studies do not really make a concrete argument for the role of this virus in MS causation. There does not seem to be any study conducted to examine a dose-response relation of the virus with respect to development of MS. In lieu of the above evidence, a criterion of specificity has been wasted and is best overlooked.

So one real conclusion from observations made so far is that CDV may be responsible for the causation of MS. However, it is definitely not the only factor in the causal pathway. This implies that CDV may be a necessary factor in the development of MS as could be other infectious agents (bacterial or viral). However, an individual's environment, genetics and immune system are other sufficient factors crucial in disease causation. Also I take this opportunity to highlight the cause 'Take good care of your pet dog and yourself'. It is the rule of nature, "What goes around, comes around".


1. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (n.d.). What is multiple sclerosis? Retrieved April 12, 2010.

2. The Journal of the American Medical Association. (2006). Multiple Sclerosis. Retrieved April 12, 2010.

3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2010). NINDS Multiple Sclerosis Information page. Retrieved April 12, 2010.

4. The Multiple Sclerosis Information Trust. (2008). All about multiple sclerosis. Retrieved April 12, 2010.

5. Cook, S.D. (1996). Epidemiology of multiple sclerosis: Clues to the etiology of a mysterious disease. Neuroscientist, 2, 172-80. Retrieved April 12, 2010.

6. Cook, S D, Rohowsky-Kochan, C, Bansil, S, et al. (1995). Evidence for multiple sclerosis as an infectious disease. Acta neurologica Scandinavica. Supplementum, 161, 34-42. Retrieved April 12, 2010

7. Johnson, R T. (1994). The virology of demyelinating diseases. Annals of neurology, 36 Suppl, S54-S60. Retrieved April 12, 2010.

8. Giovannoni, G, Cutter, G R, Lunemann, Jan, et al. (2006). Infectious causes of multiple sclerosis. Lancet Neurology, The, 5(10), 887-894.

9. Yoshikawa, Y, Ochikubo, F, Matsubara, Y, et al. (1989). Natural infection with canine distemper virus in a japanese monkey (macaca fuscata). Veterinary microbiology, 20(3), 193-205.

10. Hughes, R A, Russell, W C, Froude, J R, et al. (1980). Pet ownership, distemper antibodies and multiple sclerosis. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 47(3), 429-432.

11. Rohowsky-Kochan, C, Dowling, P C, & Cook, S D. (1995). Canine distemper virus-specific antibodies in multiple sclerosis. Neurology, 45(8), 1554-1560.

12. Norman, J E, Cook, S D, & Dowling, P C. (1983). Household pets among veterans with multiple sclerosis and age-matched controls. pilot survey. Archives of neurology, 40(4), 213-214.

13. Haile, R, Smith, P, Read, D, et al. (1982). A study of measles virus and canine distemper virus antibodies, and of childhood infections in multiple sclerosis patients and controls. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 56(1), 1-10.

14. Cook, S D, Natelson, B H, Levin, B E, et al. (1978). Further evidence of a possible association between house dogs and multiple sclerosis. Annals of neurology, 3(2), 141-143.

15. Macgregor, H S, & Latiwonk, Q I. (1992). Search for the origin of multiple sclerosis by first identifying the vector. Medical hypotheses, 37(2), 67-73.

16. Pryse-Phillips, W E. (1986). The incidence and prevalence of multiple sclerosis in newfoundland and labrador, 1960-1984. Annals of neurology, 20(3), 323-328.

17. Cook, S D, & Dowling, P C. (1982). Distemper and multiple sclerosis in sitka, alaska. Annals of neurology, 11(2), 192-194.

18. Cook, S D. (1987). Man, dogs, and hydatid disease. The Lancet, 1(8523), 21-22.


More like this

"The disease is rarely fatal and most of the people are only mildly affected. Moreover, most of the affected people remit spontaneously"
Uhm, you might want to reconsider this statement. Mildly affected? Since when is extreme fatigue, not being able to pick up your kids, or stand with out support been mild? And the form is relapsing-remitting - they spontaneously get worse too.

By MS Patient (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

My sister has MS and our family never owned a dog, I do remember in the 80's that there was a link between MS and feline distemper; we did own a lot of cats. (I'm not too familiar with the disease, are feline and canine distemper the same?) I remember our mom getting upset upon hearing the news, that she might have endangered her daughter by allowing us to own cats. She even considered getting rid of my cat at the time, we managed to talk her out of it. I remember seeing a report on the news recently that there may be a link between MS and a lack of vitamin D. This theory seems to make the most sense to me because of the rates of MS being higher as you get into colder more northern climates. Maybe one factor makes you more susceptible to the other?

By Susan Ferguson (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

This 2006 paper shows MS is definitely NOT autoimmune.…
It has been confirmed in 2009.

Chronic cerebro spinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI) has been found in 96-100% of MS patients who were tested by venography. The country of Kuwait is treating all 3000 MS patients in that country with angioplasty of their stenosed jugular and azygous veins. search term CCSVI or Paulo Zamboni

By carol schumacher (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

I've heard that distemper might be linked to Paget's disease, but not MS. still viruses dont always behave in the way that the textbooks say they should.

I have read that cats can also aid the development of MS. However, I already have MS, and I got two cats to keep me companie. Does it means that they can make me worse?

There was a brief report in Scientific American about 30 years ago that Iceland had high rates of both canine distemper and MS. However, the connection didn't go anywhere. Perhaps scientists will take another look with more sensitive assays.

Thankyou for the article. My wife's mother nursed the family's dog, when it had distemper, and she later contracted MND, which I understand is always fatal. Another case where karma doesn't apply.


Zamboni's papers are not proof of anything. The sample size is small, the control groups are either poorly-chosen or non-existent, and nobody has yet replicated his findings. Even if we confirmed the presence of iron deposition in the brains of MS patients and definitively linked it to "cerebrovascular insufficiency", it would be a correlation, not causation. How do you know that the autoimmune process doesn't also cause iron depositions? How can you show that the iron depositions actually cause MS? We're still a long way away from drawing conclusions.

i have secondary progressive m.s and would like to know how to overcome my husbands reluctance to touch me due to my urostomy= he must flush the thing twice daily and change tube every 3 weeks ,cannot se that has been my fault but i need some help wot=rking this out with him otherwise we are still a lloving couple i am scared he is just turned totally off by this,any advise?/

By mary willliams (not verified) on 13 Jul 2011 #permalink

hi everyone. I read a old health magazine that was dated way back, in the 60's and in there was an article about the relationship between distemper and m.s. Apparently there was a outbreak of distemper in this small English town and years later a high rate of ms. Now I have been very interested in this for some time. I was raised with dogs and one we had to put down because of distemper. I had symptoms of m.s. about 8 years ago. extreme dizziness, dropping things, numbness the whole bit and it went away. I went to a specialist and he said I had a 20% chance that I might have it. What ever that ment? Anyways I have been asking those who have m.s and a lot said they had dogs with distemper. I understand that raw liver..anyways google raw liver and m.s and read about it and then google raw liver and distemper..very interesting.

Interesting article. I have heart MS come up more than once in my life but the symptoms have never worsened. I have been exposed to CDV twice in my life, and yes, my "symptoms" occurred about 10 years after the second. The first time, as a child, I just can't say I recall. MRI's have shown brain lesions. They were orig administered due to sever migraines. I also had to look up Epstein-Barr and when I did, I have a STRONG recollection...oh, THAT! Well, for now, so far, I have maintained the status quo in health and that is all one can hope for. Thanks for your article. I don't know if it makes me feel better but if this is what I've got to deal with in life, so be it.