• This vet’s treatment can save dogs in the early stages of canine distemper, but because of his fear of reactions within veterinarian community, he kept his discovery quiet for almost three decades. The common belief among vets is that there is no effective treatment for canine distemper. However, Dr. Alson Sears may have stumbled into one of those fortunate accidents of science where a breakthrough can happen. Note: This story chronicles the three times that Amy and I battled canine distemper from February 1996 to February 1997. After I published this story here on the Internet in May 2000, Dr. Alson Sears felt compelled to publish the details of his canine distemper treatment. Since then, I have heard success stories from dog owners around the U.S. and the world.
Copyright© Ed Bond 2000
Originally written in June 1997
By ED BOND
Let me tell you how we named our dogs.
Tug was a throwaway dog, an eight-week old shepherd-mix pup with fur ravaged by mange. As Amy and I walked her around the block, I would spin the leash in front of her. She would catch it and, well, tug back.
We got her a year ago in February. She left us that March.
Selkie was a black lab, with some shepherd, a messy eater with a nose perpetually coated with her previous meal. She was named out of hope, from an ancient Gaelic mythical creature of the sea with an insecure relationship with man. The hope was that she would not leave us.
We had rescued her in mid-May. She left in mid-June.
By the time we found Shadow, in October, we were mentally exhausted, too drained for a creative name. But she shadowed us around the house, so we applied that verb to her. An Australian Cattle Dog – again with some shepherd – she is muscular and high strung, taken to barking at 1 a.m. Either Amy or I drag ourselves out of bed, and if we have the patience, close our hands to her head, make eye contact and as calmly as possible say, “No barking.”
Galen’s first act with us – this February – was to put his chin on Amy’s thigh, followed by one front paw, then another. His name means calm in Gaelic, but later we would learn his demeanor was part fraud, he was already weary from battling an old enemy of ours.
In a year, we fought that enemy four times, and became too familiar with his attack, the silence, deception and betrayal.
Thirty years ago, this enemy was as common as fleas. Today, vets tell us how unlucky we were to have faced it so often. Most vets never even see it.
The tally, so far: two dead, one survived and one never attacked.
Now let me tell you how we fought canine distemper.
The enemy assembles
“The small brown dog you ordered has arrived,” said the message on our answering machine that rainy February Sunday afternoon. It was the Dog Lady of Los Angeles. “No payment is required. You only need to pick her up.”
Amy and I affectionately call my sister, Karen, the Dog Lady of Los Angeles. She keeps treats in her car to lure strays and either reunites them with their owners or finds them homes.
Tug had been left in the women’s restroom at Farmer’s Market. She was found in a box next to the garbage can.
That night, we watched a dirty, four-legged creature walk around Karen’s courtyard in that undriven death march of the homeless, less like a puppy than scrawny pink skin held together by exhaustion and despair. We couldn’t tell what kind of dog she was.
Amy shook her head.
“I just don’t know about this,” she said.
“We’ll try it for a week,” I suggested. “And see what happens.”
I was the one who wanted a dog. Our summer wedding was a few months off. We had two cats, but dog helps makes a home.
But the enemy had already invaded and was assembling microscopic armies against us.
We didn’t know.
Amy paged me after Tug’s first trip to the vet, for shots and a checkup.
“I have one word for you,” she said. “Mange.”
She would need weekly dips for the next four weeks to eliminate the microscopic parasites that had eaten her brown and black fur. We had to keep the cats away from her, using spray bottles to drive them off, sometimes having to leave her in the bathroom alone. But classical music soothed her.
For the first two nights, the death march walking continued. I’d find her in the dark, where she paused on one more circuit around the bed and fell asleep.
Then, she realized she didn’t have to walk, that she had a home. She rested, ate, and slowly the real dog emerged. We bought squeaky toys and gave her oatmeal baths to restore her coat.
“You really picked a great dog,” Amy said one day.
That morning, after her walk, Tug had sat down to protest the routine being broken. “It was as if she was saying, `You know you are forgetting something, aren’t you?’ Amy said.
She had forgotten to let her play with the toy in her pocket. So, they played for about 15 minutes, Tug chasing in and around Amy’s legs. “I love this dog,” she said.
As an airborne virus, distemper is usually breathed in from the aerosol nasal discharge of an infected dog, although sometimes it can be ingested, said Dr. Janet Foley, an infectious diseases fellow at the Center for Companion Animal Health at U.C. Davis. It is a highly unstable virus that does not survive more than a few hours outside of a dog’s body. The virus quickly spreads in enclosed environments, like shelters.
Within 24 of exposure_before she was found in that restroom_the virus had already reached Tug’s tonsils and lymphatic system. It was attacking her natural defenses first. By the second or third day, the virus was attacking her mononucleaic cells, a class of disease-fighting white blood cells. A fever can develop within four days, Foley said.
On her second trip to the vet after we had her for a week, Tug was prescribed an antibiotic for a runny nose. At this stage, distemper is indistinguishable from a lesser problem, like kennel cough.
But it was now attacking the epithelial cells in the lining of the respiratory tract. We didn’t know.
We made the pills into treats, wrapping them in little pieces of bread and made her sit for them. She learned to sit quickly for them, as if to tell us, “I will sit because I love you.”
Amy took Tug to work with her in Sherman Oaks. She became a favorite there and at the vet’s. Tug followed her around the office. Tug wagged her tail and squirmed when I came to pick them up at the end of the day.
“She has the will to live now,” one of Amy’s coworkers said. “That’s the difference.”
In distemper, the course of attack varies with the individual strain of the virus and the ability of the animal to fight the disease. Puppies, especially those who have not had any natural immunity from mother’s milk, are least able to fight it off. Between the third and the ninth day, the virus has become wide spread throughout the dog.
The virus attacks cells with what is called a cytopathic response, invading a healthy cell, causing them to swell up and die.
The danger of the mange faded, and after four weeks, the gates and barriers we had used to keep her away from the cats came down. I brought her to Moorpark College, where I was teaching journalism, and let her play with the students.
It was about 7 o’clock on a Monday morning, rather than soiling the rug as usual, Tug barked to go out for the first time and then squirmed and squealed at my feet, waiting for me to take her outside.
She was housebroken.
But the enemy had assembled its forces. That afternoon, the virus struck.
The distemper had destroyed the white blood cells that filled a lining called the meneges – between the spinal cord and brain – that had been defending Tug’s grey matter.
After the first seizure, Tug was confused and barking. Amy and her boss had to corner her before she could take her to the closest vet she could find, in Studio City.
What had happened was similar to using a pair of wire cutters to strip the insulation from an electrical wire. Nerve cells are protected by a sheath of cells called mylen. If the mylen decays, “it is very much like a short circuit,” Foley said.
The mylen is not necessarily destroyed by the distemper, but sometimes is destroyed by the dog’s own antibodies trying to attack the virus.
Tug’s first seizure was brief. The Studio City vet let Tug go back to the office. Epilepsy was one possibility. Or maybe she ate a spider. Or there was something called distemper.
Amy left Tug at the office with her friends so that she could work a shift at her other job as a bartender. I was planning to pick her up when my pager went off again.
It was raining.
Tug had another seizure, much worse, and was back at the vet in Studio City. The rain was chopping into fine pellets making it difficult to find the right building on Ventura Boulevard. I waited for a half-hour in a little room until I could meet Dr. Stein.
Facing the reality
He took me into a room where the cats are housed_distemper is only contagious among canines_Tug had been put there as a precaution. She had been loaded down with drugs but still dragged herself out of her stupor to say hello.
The phone rang early the next morning. Tug had more seizures. “You should be prepared for the worst,” Stein said.
“We’d still like to have her back,” I said. “Can we pick her up this afternoon?”
I called Amy after teaching a morning class at Los Angeles Valley College. “It’s distemper,” she said, and then added firmly. “But it is NOT a death sentence. We are going to do everything we can for her.”
“You bet,” I said. Boosting the immune system was the key, we were told. And our regular vet was willing to try a few treatments.
Somehow, for us that became a vow to fight for Tug any way we could.
“After these changes happen, I don’t find that they have much of a chance,” Foley said.
Dr. Stein explained the basic medication that afternoon: Phenobarbital and anti-biotics every 12 hours. The Phenobarbital was to control the seizures and antibiotics – which I had originally assumed was to attack the virus – was meant to prevent secondary diseases from attacking in the absence of an immune system either weakened or already destroyed by the virus. She was also given Valium to supplement the Phenobarbital.
“In about a week, she’ll either get better,” he said as we left. “Or the seizures will get worse.”
A blonde-haired young man handed Tug to us through a door in the back of the building. The muscles in her head were rigid and bulging. Saliva drained from her mouth, and snot and mucous coated the fur on her chest. I wrapped Tug in a blue towel as I took her into my arms and put her onto Amy’s lap after she got into the car.
Throughout the long rush hour drive home in the sunset traffic, we took turns talking to her. “Good girl Tug. You’re going to be OK, Tug.”
That Friday night, I collapsed asleep on the couch. Amy was bartending, and for the past few days we seemed to be going around the clock, cleaning up Tug, making her comfortable, getting the medication into her, and getting food into her. With the seizures and the drugs, Tug had been unconscious for a couple of days.
Then, as I dozed on the couch at about 12:30 a.m., something jarred at my arm.
I’d left her in a basket on the floor by my side.
Tug jumped at my arm again. She cried. She was awake and had to go outside.
Her walk was staggered, the legs having trouble supporting her. She seemed to propel herself forward to keep herself upright. And kept drifting off to the side like a drunkard headed for the bar.
She could barely support herself when she stopped to pee. She walked for a half a block with me. Back inside, she kept walking, and as she walked I used a syringe to squirt food and water into her mouth.
We kept that up for another hour, until Amy got home from work. “You’re going to get better,” I told Tug. “You’re going to be playing on the beach with us real soon.”
The beach in Playa del Rey had been her favorite place.
Unfortunately, the demylenization is not the main attack of distemper. “It’s more a secondary problem,” Foley said.
Distemper attacks nearly every organ in the body, from the kidneys and liver to the enamel in the teeth, as well as the structure of the eyes, and the tear ducts. In the brain, while the short-circuiting of seizures is occurring, the virus is also attacking other cells including those of the cerebellum, where the higher consciousness resides.
We didn’t know it, but we were losing Tug cell by cell.
The fight lasted another two weeks. Our vet tried acupuncture treatments and vitamin C. We didn’t want to think about killing her. The seizures were not painful, we were told, the animal simply feels nothing during the episode. Tug seemed to settle down into a pattern of one long but mild seizure. Often we felt the top of her head as the two muscles there throbbed rhythmically.
Like having a baby, we took over all her bodily functions for her, hoping that if we took care of everything else, she could fight off the virus. She lost control of her bowels and we diapered her. We bathed her and fed her with a baby bottle, a formula of special puppy food, milk supplement and water blended into a kind of canine milkshake.
As long as she kept eating, which she did, we felt there was a chance.
We lost sleep. It seemed our eyes were playing tricks on us, not sure if she was seizuring or just breathing, we watched her carefully, looking for any hope.
One morning after preparing a cocktail of her medicines in a shot glass of water heated in the microwave, I watched in bleary-eyed disbelief as the yellowish solution evaporated before my eyes. The glass split in two.
It took a couple of minutes for my addled mind to realize that heating the water in a microwave had ruined the glass. A small hole had cracked the bottom.
Eventually, pneumonia set in.
At times it seemed that Tug would forget to breathe and only remember to as we called out to her.
By now we were moving her legs and head for her to keep her muscles from atrophying. We changed her position routinely to keep the fluids from the pneumonia from settling in one part of her lungs.
After one breathless period, late one night as we thought about getting ready to put her down for the night, my tired brain tricked my mouth into saying the words. “Do you think we should put her to sleep?”
But we weren’t ready to give up yet. We continued the routine until one Sunday morning after she had eaten a portion of the food in her baby bottle. Tug choked and vomited on me.
The virus had finally attacked her stomach. We weren’t able to feed her.
Later that day, while I was at work, Tug stopped breathing again and Amy hospitalized her at our vet.
They were able to feed her better, and a more intensive drug treatment was started with an intravenous tube.
While visiting her a couple days later, our vet, Dr. B.. suggested one more thing. She had heard of a vet in Lancaster who used some unorthodox treatments, and asked if she could try a blood transfusion from another dog she had that had survived distemper.
Her idea would not work. That vet, Dr. Alson Sears of Lancaster, had tried without success using simple blood serum from distemper dogs. But the treatment that he claims does work is a little more mysterious than that.
Tug died in her sleep, just before her evening medication, sparing us the decision to euthanize her. We were on the way to visit her. I was making an awkward left turn just a couple of blocks away from the vet when the pager went off. I handed it to Amy.
“It’s the vet’s,” she said. Then after a busy silence as we moved through traffic, she said, “I think it’s bad news.”
She was brought to us in an examination room, wrapped loosely in a blue blanket, and laid on a table, resting with her eyes open and cool to the touch. In the three weeks we had battled the virus, Tug’s fur had come in, more a full shepherd now. Her legs had been growing, giving the slightest suggestion of adult shape.
I was surprised to collapse in tears against Amy.
Picking up the pieces
About a month and a half after Tug’s ashes were scattered on the beach_ in a ceremony with my sister and some close friends _I absent-mindedly picked up an animal rescue newspaper at the neighborhood market on an evening walk. I handed it to Amy without thinking.
“It looks like Tug,” Amy said. A story about a litter of Labrador/shepherd mix puppies that needed to be rescued from a shelter included a photo of a Tug-like dog.
That puppy died of a ruptured intestine before we could reach the woman who was trying to find them homes. But Amy found Selkie among its siblings.
The Selkie is a creature from Gaelic legend, half-human, half-seal. We had recently seen “The Secret of Roan Innish,” which tells the tale of a man who captures a Selkie and lives in fear of losing her. We had heard she might be a good water dog, so the name seemed appropriate.
Within minutes of picking her up, I was in an examining room presenting her to Dr. B.
Dr. B. gave the animal an exam, her shots _ we weren’t going to let it happen again _ and the usual tests. She shrugged and said “Feed her and love her.”
“Isn’t this the scrawniest thing on four legs you’ve ever seen,” she said to another vet.
The routine returned, a puppy in the back seat on our morning commute that would stay with Amy all day.Then she developed a small cough.
“It could be kennel cough,” Karen said. Maybe.
We had her tested again for distemper. She’d been tested before and was found clean. That was the only reason we accepted her. The second test may have been pointless, since the vaccination she got from Dr. B. would have thrown it off.
“It couldn’t be distemper again,” we kept saying to ourselves.
If it was, we at least knew we had a better chance fighting it now, before the seizures started. We put aside the fear for the worst and did what we could to boost her immune system. At least that might help her with the kennel cough — or whatever that was.
“The amazing coughing dog,” is what we started calling her, even as I chopped vegetables for hours as part of a special diet suggested by the Venice Animal Alliance. I would mix them with raw lamb and the rest of her food. But Selkie wouldn’t eat it.
We started giving her vitamin C pills. She didn’t like them wrapped in bread. We would have to open her mouth and toss them down her gullet.
She remained skin and bones on four legs. She developed a fever, but we still hoped.
Then one morning when I had asked to work at home, Amy called from the vet. She was about to get on the freeway when Selkie had a chewing gum seizure.
“I’ll be right there,” I said.
A chewing gum seizure is a twisted smacking of the gums, where the sides of the dog’s mouth snarl up, and the saliva is released and sometimes foams.
Again in an examining room with Selkie, Dr. B. asked us to think about putting her to sleep this time.
“I can’t do that,” Amy said. Now she was the one crying. “Not while she’s still with us.”
Selkie started to seizure again, more like a rabid dog. Dr. B. found a point on her leg and pressed her thumb on it. `”It’s an accupressure point,” she said. “It is supposed to relieve the seizure.”
Her mouth stopped flaring.
I had one idea.
“Who was this vet you told us about,” I asked Dr. B. “The one up in Lancaster?”
I got a name and phone number for Dr. Sears, brought Selkie home and called. No, a technician who answered the phone said, there is nothing they could do once the seizures started.
I spent the next 24 hours with Selkie, cleaning her, comforting her, and giving her medication. Oddly enough, she got her appetite back and started eating everything I gave her, including that vegetable/raw lamb mix she used to refuse. In between seizures she was a normal dog.
I kept searching the Internet for information on distemper, even e-mailed a couple of vets, trying to find out the survival rate for dogs after seizures started. I found nothing I didn’t already know.
On the second night, Amy and I were bathing her when another seizure started.
At first I thought it was just from the shock of being in the water again. But Selkie was locked in a permanent short-circuit.
It didn’t stop after we took her out of the bath.
It didn’t stop after we dried her off.
It didn’t stop to let us get her evening medication into her. We only were able to drip a drop or two into her mouth as her head jerked side to side, throwing spit.
Our friend, Margaret Owens happened to stop by that night. “It’s not fair to her anymore,” she said.
Our vet was already closed for the night. Finally, we decided we could not wait until morning. We started going through the phone book. Just before midnight, we climbed into the back of Margaret‘s four-wheel drive and she drove us to an emergency veterinary hospital on Sepulveda near Westwood.
We waited for half an hour, with Selkie on my lap spraying spit on me as I watched a bad episode of Star Trek on the waiting room television. We watched to make sure there were no dogs around. Only cats.
Finally we were shown in to a vet. We explained she had distemper.
She gave her quick look.
“What do you want me to do?”
“We think she should be put to sleep,” Amy said.
A few minutes later, after signing the paperwork, we were brought into another room. Selkie was lying on the table, still spraying spit back and forth. A tube had been inserted into her leg. The fatal injection was ready.
“Good-bye Selkie,” Amy said. “I’m sorry, Selkie.”
“Bye-bye Selkie,” I said. “We tried.”
We both kissed her on the top of the head. The table was cool and smooth. The vet began the injection.
Finally, the seizures stopped.
Selkie’s head stopped thrashing. The drooling ended. The puppy we knew returned, falling asleep.
“She is no longer with us,” said the vet, almost crying herself. “Please, in the future, make sure you get the dog vaccinated.”
She meant well. She didn’t know the virus had beaten us to the needle again.
Selkie died on my birthday in June. We scattered her on the same beach as Tug.
Living with paranoia
“You guys are on restriction,” Dr. B. told us. “The next dog you get, I have to approve it.”
By that she meant, if we brought in another dog that she had any doubts about, she would just take it away from us.Shadow cost $100, but that included a free bag of food and a coupon to get her fixed.
She had been born in a South-Central animal shelter in August. We started looking for her in October. Our friends insisted on coming with us as we went from shelter to shelter, afraid Amy would fall in love with the sickest thing to come along.
But we found Shadow in a pet store in Westwood. PALS had rescued her from the South-Central shelter and kept her for a month to make sure she was healthy before putting her up for adoption.
She was playful and quick to lick Amy. Most importantly she was strong. Amy took her for her first checkup. “You don’t realize,” Dr. B. said to the puppy, “your four paws just landed in the lap of luxury.”
“[Dr. B.] has a message for you,” Amy told me later. “ `Good job.’ ”
Again, we took another puppy with us to Sherman Oaks. But Shadow was too full of energy. She chewed furniture, bit fingers, peed in the wrong places, once on top of an important piece of paper that had the misfortune to land on the floor.
We were _ mostly me _ the most paranoid dog owners in the world.
Before getting Shadow, we had moved to a new house. Most of Tug’s and Selkie’s toys and bedding had been thrown out– just in case. I never let her off the property. And when I found a foreign deposit on the front lawn from a strange dog, I not only picked it up, but I wrapped the newspaper I picked it up with and wrapped it in a plastic bag.
Then I wrapped that bag in another plastic bag.
I guess I would have wrapped Shadow in plastic bags if I could have.
Each month we took her to the vet for booster shots. In late October, she started sneezing.
I panicked, suddenly realizing that we had washed her in the same plastic tub that we had bathed Tug and Selkie in. I e-mailed some vets, but was reassured distemper could not be transmitted after so long. “Distemper needs a live animal or a laboratory to survive,” one vet said in an e-mail.
The sneezing didn’t last. In December, she got her final vaccination shot, which included the shot for rabies. I clasped the rabies tag in my hand like an alcoholic with a one-year chip from AA. “Now we have a real dog,” I said.
However, she was the most paranoid animal we could have had. Since we had kept her away from other dogs, she didn’t know how to play with them.
“Maybe Shadow needs a friend,” Amy caught herself saying one day. She immediately made me swear never to repeat that. But fate was already working to bring us to Galen.
ot long after Amy absent-mindedly wondered about whether Shadow needed a friend, Karen found another dog, a street dog from Pico and Alvarado Karen was calling “Red Dog,” which she was trying to place in a good home.
In late January during a rainstorm, the engine on Amy’s Toyota blew just beyond Getty Center Drive on the 405. It took a couple of weeks to find the right mechanic, but after the job was done we didn’t have enough money.
We stopped by Karen’s apartment on the way home one night to borrow the money, and Galen introduced himself with chin and paws on Amy’s lap. Again she was in love.
“You don’t have any reservations about him, do you?” Amy asked as we talked about the dog on the way home.
“None,” I said.
Only to myself did I admit that so far almost every dog she has fallen in love with so quickly has died. “Nah,” I thought. “It couldn’t possibly happen again.”For one thing, Galen was an adult, probably about two years old. He was a strong dog who had probably survived on the streets for a while. Most importantly, Dr. B. had checked him over and gave him a clean bill of health.
Karen brought him over to visit Shadow that Saturday. They got along well enough and he liked being with us. So, she just let him stay.
“How do you keep doing this too me?” Amy said.
“What did I do?”
“Look, now we have two cats and two dogs. How did that happen?”
Amy had always suspected that if I had my chance I would fill any house we moved to with animals. Both of my sisters have done so. She had sworn that she would not let it happen. But no, I pointed out. I didn’t do anything. Each animal was either a joint decision or one that she had fallen in love with hopelessly.
Shadow was still a puppy and was already even in height with Galen. We thought that as she grew that might happen to balance Galen’s natural aggressiveness. They played together, a constant game of wrestling with their mouths and teeth. Galen quickly taught Shadow to how to chase cats.
Then, one night, I heard Galen coughing.
It was familiar.
“If anything happens to Shadow,” Amy said. “I’ll never forgive myself.”
The results showed a low-grade infection. Distemper had found us again. Amy called me.
I had her ask if we should take him to this doctor in Lancaster, this Dr. Sears we had heard of.
“She said that wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
Finding Dr. Sears
It was a few months after Galen’s treatment that I finally talked to Dr. Sears for this story. He hadn’t returned earlier phone calls. I called again.
“Get me out of this,” he said to his wife, Ruth, when he heard I was on the line.
It took some convincing on my part before she let me talk to him. “I just don’t want to go out there again,” he told her.
I wasn’t trying to make him out to be more than he was, I said. I just wanted to write this story. With the understanding that Sears was not attempting to sell himself as a savior of dogs, Ruth put me on the phone with him.
The problem was that the treatment has not been published, except once in the 1970s, and that was a treatment for cats, for a different disease, Sears said. As a treatment for canine distemper, it had not been published.
At a 1974 convention in front of about 2,000 colleagues, Sears brought up his treatment during a seminar.
The lead doctor at the seminar, thought about it, and then said, “Sit down, that’s impossible.”
“I was so mad I was spitting nails,” Sears said.
Forget about getting acceptance, Sears said. He decided to shun publicity because of the continued resistance he expected to see by trying to promote the treatment. “I’ll just keep saving animals.”
Al and Ruth Sears had met at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s. She was a nursing student and he was in vet school. She was from the East Coast, and Al had grown up in the Panama Canal Zone. The moved to California to finish his veterinary training and in the 1960s, Sears started working in the Antelope Valley.
“When I came here, distemper was as common as fleas,” Sears said.
As today, there was no treatment for distemper. And, vaccines were not as strong or reliable. When an outbreak occurred, all that could be done was to make an announcement and ask people to bring in their dogs, line them up and give them shots.
Sears agreed to meet with me. I drove up and had lunch with both of them at a country club. Ruth acts as an office manager. They work in a small, one story building, with a clean, white lobby sometimes visited by Mitchell, a grey and white cat. He had been dropped off one day, never picked up, and eventually became the office cat.
“Call me Al,” Sears said as we shook hands. He was a big man with white hair.
As he drove us to the country club, I told him about the dogs that we lost. “There must have been something I missed,” I said, talking about how Tug’s symptoms had not tipped us off.
“You can’t tell the difference between a real bad case of kennel cough and a mild case of distemper,” Sears said.
During distemper outbreaks in the 1960s, “we were losing ten dogs a week,” Sears said.
They tried a variety of experimental treatments, including massive doses of vitamin C, another using ether. But no such treatments worked.
“The key to the whole thing is to turn the virus off,” Sears said. By accident, he somehow found a way.
In the 1970s, a paper was released on developing an interferon for dogs. Essentially, it was a method to stimulate the disease fighting macrophage cells and T-cells to get into a dog’s system in force.
Sears followed a procedure he had heard of for triggering the interferon, and withdrawing a material from the animal at a key time. He did so without the full written report and made a mistake in the timing for withdrawing the material.
But he didn’t know that when he tried the serum on one dog with distemper.
“Literally, the next day, the dog was better,” Sears said.
He mailed a sample of the material to Cornell University. A report returned to him said the levels of interferon were insignificant.
“In the meantime, we were saving dogs,” Sears said. “So we didn’t care.”
But how did it work?
“I don’t know,” Sears said. “What we don’t know to this day is what the material is.”
To find the answer requires intensive research. That requires money and support that Sears does not have and is not willing to seek out because of the strong criticism he received in the 1970s that prompted him to keep his discovery mostly to himself.
Fortunately, our vet had heard of him.
“I’ll probably publish, but it will be when I’m ready to get out of the firing line,” said Sears, who is still at least a couple of years away from retirement, when he wanted to publish.
“I’ve been burned a couple of times by the big guns before,” he continued. “I finally said, `I don’t care.”
He chose to wait until retiring because of the examples of Copernicus, who believed the Earth revolved around the sun, but fearing the wrath of the church, did not publish until the year of his death, and Galileo, who proved Copernicus right, but had to recant under threat of excommunication and torture from the church.
“These are milestones in science,” said Sears, as he explained why he was so reluctant at first to talk to me. “And everybody remembers them.”
Sears expects that when he publishes his treatment, it will create a similar uproar in the veterinary community. “Everybody will yell and scream,” Sears said. “But then, I’ll be saying, `Fine, yell and scream, but this is what I found.”
In recent years, distemper became less the problem. Parvo, a powerful virus that can survive outside a dog for a long time, which causes severe dehydration, diarrhea and death, became the issue.
Thanks to the stronger and commonplace vaccinations of today, distemper is more rare.
Galen had been the first case Sears had seen in at least six years.
He had a fever when Karen brought Galen in. He was treated with fluids, and antibiotics. He was clearly sick. “He wasn’t fighting anyone,” Sears said.
Sears keeps the material _ the color of weak honey beer _ what he calls “goofy serum” but Ruth prefers the more respectable name of ”Serum X” in a refrigerator near the back door. Ten CCs of the serum was taken from a simple vial and injected into the rump.
Further shots were required. Galen had to stay over the weekend.
The fever was under control in 18 hours.
Facing the skepticism
Foley and other vets are doubtful about such a treatment. Antiviral treatments have not been successful. Most who espouse experimental treatments are only interested in grabbing media attention, funding and patients. “If they’re so wonderful,” Foley said. “Why don’t they come forward and be tested in the methods of science?”
But Foley _ who does not know Sears _ can understand why he hasn’t come forward. Research costs money, and distemper is better controlled through vaccination. Finding a treatment after the disease has struck is a low priority in veterinary science.
“If I were to write a grant to study distemper, it wouldn’t get funded,” Foley said.
I had to work the Sunday that Amy and Karen brought Galen back, but I was waiting when they got home.
As I waited, I thought about the night before Galen left. Amy and I sat with him in the home office where he had to be kept. We didn’t want Shadow exposed to the virus any more than we had to. We petted him, scratched his head, and took a few pictures. We were saying good-bye.
“I know,” Karen said. “I was so upset. I thought I was going to take him up there and he was going to die there.”
That weekend even Shadow was unhappy.
At about the moment that Galen was brought into the back gate _ breathing, not cremated and scattered on a beach, not comatose or seizuring, all qualities I prefer in dogs _ Shadow launched herself through the dog door into the backyard.
In the chaos that ensued, Karen and Amy explained to me that according to Sears, the virus had been turned off. However, the distemper had probably already done damage, possibly to the stomach, the lungs, most definitely the eyes, the skin on the nose and the pads of the feet.
Distemper attacks the tear ducts, shutting them down, making it impossible for the eyes to naturally rewet themselves. That develops into dry eyes.
Along with treatments of liquid vitamin A on the pads of the feet and on Galen’s nose, which had seemed to dry up and crack like the bed of an evaporated lake, we also had to start putting ointment directly onto Galen’s eyeballs.
Amy held Galen still, as Karen _ who seems to have a talent for these things, and a special relationship with Galen as his original rescuer _ started to apply the ointment. My job was just to hold Shadow.
But she broke free, and with front legs outstretched, she threw herself bodily against Galen. About the closest a dog could come to giving a bear hug, as if to say, “HOORAYYY!! Welcome home!”
We kept up the treatments for a couple of weeks. Galen would sometimes need a muzzle because he hated the eye ointments and nose cream. We watched him carefully, wondering if a smacking of chops was a preliminary chewing gum seizure. Dr. B. saw one of these smacking of chops on a visit.
“If it was an actual seizure, you will see more,” Sears told me. The mylen continues to degrade after decay begins.
It has been months now. And Galen has remained healthy. We have found out he is really an aggressive dog, who will sometimes bite. But we are working on him, and he is getting better.
Meanwhile the love affair continues between our dogs.
Their favorite game is tug