Viral Disease

What is a virus, and what is viral disease?

Contrary to popular belief, the more exposure healthy animals have with other animals, the more likely they are not to come down with disease.

A virus is by definition a contagion or poison and is commonly described as the causative agent of an infectious disease that is capable of growth and multiplication only within living cells. Viruses, smaller than bacteria and of different composition, act in exceedingly minute quantities to cause numerous diseases of varying severity in man, animals, and plants. Imperceptible to the senses, viruses are readily spread about from one individual to another through direct and indirect contact.

Viral disease, like any other infectious disease, is more a function of the susceptibility and underlying ill health of the individual than it is the virulence of the organism. In other words, the better one's health, the tougher the immune system, and the less likely it will be that a virus can set in. When challenged by a virus, a healthy body with a properly functioning immune system will fight off the invaders whereas an unhealthy body will not. If the animal is unable to mount the necessary defenses, the virus will multiply rapidly and damage or destroy the animal.

According to Christina Chambreau, DVM, of Sparks, Maryland, the two most common viral diseases that affect dogs are distemper and parvovirus, and for cats, panleukopenia (cat distemper) and feline leukemia. "Dog distemper and cat distemper are two totally different diseases, however," she explains. "Both bear the name 'distemper' because in earlier years these were the only two diseases affecting cats and dogs. Since then, other diseases have appeared as animals have gotten more ill overall."


FLV positive cats who are not ill can become FLV negative.

"As people," Dr. Chambreau explains, " we aren't getting measles, mumps, and polio vaccines every year of our lives until we die. For our barnyard friends as well, the protection from vaccines for viral diseases probably lasts a lifetime in most animals."

She says, "Currently Dr. Ron Schultz, head of the Department of Immunology of the University of Wisconsin College of Veterinary Medicine, has successfully communicated with enough universities and organizations that the American Association of Feline Practitioners recently adopted new guidelines recommending vaccines only every 3 years for cats. The AAFP also recommends that feline leukemia vaccine be given very cautiously and only to those individuals at very high risk. They acknowledged that the protection probably lasts a lifetime but they're not ready to take the big step of recommending that we go back to how it was 40 years ago and vaccinate the cats only once. Similar movements have not been made yet for dogs but many veterinary colleges are no longer recommending annual vaccinations for dogs or cats," says Dr. Chambreau.

"Cornell University has a VAX program that encourages practitioners throughout the country to draw titers (drawing blood to test for antibodies against specific diseases) instead of vaccinating [see NHM Volume 2, Issue 2, Vaccinations: What are you going to do this year??]. The practitioners then make a recommendation as to whether the animal should be vaccinated or not, given the level of the antibodies in the titers." Each individual animal has different requirements regarding the levels of antibodies but those individual requirements are unknown. Although there is a guideline range, it does not necessarily apply to every individual.

Studies are currently being done in Sweden and the US where antibody levels are being measured in cats and dogs for Parvo and Panleukopenia. The animals are showing adequate antibody response at least 6 to 8 years after the vaccines were given, and the studies are still ongoing.

"However," says Dr. Chambreau, "Dr. Ron Schultz reminds us that when a vaccine is injected into an animal of any species, the animal is then vaccinated; when blood is drawn and there are antibodies present, the animal is then immunized against that injected disease. The presence of antibodies indicates that the animal has mounted some sort of defense in response to the injected disease. However, the only way to know if an animal is truly protected against any disease is, unfortunately, to challenge the animal to that disease and have them not come down with it or not die from it."

"The best protection against viral diseases, as for any disease," says Dr. Chambreau, "is overall wellness. Overall wellness is achieved by feeding the best diet, building up the overall system of the animal instead of merely treating the symptoms and/or diseases that present themselves, and providing the best possible environment and lifestyle."

She continues, "Some people feel that because they work in a shelter or bring their dogs along to the barn, increasing their exposure to many other dogs, their animal is at more risk and therefore should be vaccinated more frequently. Just the opposite is true." Dr. Chambreau explains, "the more exposure that healthy animals get, the more likely they are to not come down with the disease. The reason for this is that natural immunity is far better than any immunity from vaccines, and constant reexposure keeps one's natural immune system responding."

Regarding protection for puppies and kittens, Dr. Chambreau says, "When you have a very young puppy or kitten, you may want to limit exposure until they are old enough to develop the means to begin building resistance to specific diseases, maybe 12 to16 weeks old. The mother's protection lasts somewhere from 6 to 9 weeks but is variable with every animal. It could be much longer; the maternal protection from parvo has been documented to last up to 4 months. That is why the current recommendation in the conventional field for vaccinating against parvo is 12 to 16 weeks. So maternal protection is very variable.

"What's most important, again, is building up the animal's overall health," she stresses. By involving a holistic practitioner from the start in the animal's health program, a condition can be nipped in the bud as soon as any symptoms develop. "At times my clients' young puppies have developed some diarrhea," says Dr. Chambreau. "We have successfully treated them holistically and we have never run a parvo titer. They very well could have had a mild case of parvo disease, and if they had, they are now immune for the rest of their lives. From a holistic standpoint, treatment of viral diseases, if they get them, is the same as treating any other disease. Viral diseases can, however, produce a more acute problem with symptoms appearing quickly and worsening rapidly. Having a good relationship with a holistic veterinarian already would be an important thing," she advises.

Many people wonder if they can stop vaccinating their animals when they've already been vaccinating them every year for 5 or 10 years. "Is it safe at that point to stop vaccinating? Absolutely," says Dr. Chambreau. "Whether the animals have had one or twenty vaccines makes no difference for stopping the vaccinations. Also, if an animal that is vaccinated does not build a good immunity, revaccinating them often does not improve the protection."

Treatment of viral diseases by stimulation of the immune system

"We treat viral diseases the same as any other disease," says Dr. Chambreau. "When an animal gets ill, we first build up the overall immune system with echinacea, garlic, vitamin C, colloidal silver, or parsley. We can incorporate other immune stimulating holistic modalities and energy healing such as Reiki, or healing touch, and then if the symptoms are worsening, they need to be specifically treated with acupuncture, homeopathy, possibly supportive fluid therapy, or even conventional treatment." Dr. Chambreau explains the characteristics of some viral diseases:


"Parvovirus generally produces a disease that has severe, bloody, foul-smelling diarrhea along with vomiting (often quite frequent), dehydration, loss of appetite, and extreme lethargy. Some rare cases, especially in puppies, produce a congestive heart failure. Healthy dogs exposed to the parvovirus may develop only a mild diarrhea that may not be diagnosed as parvo. We treat the diarrhea symptomatically with Vitamin C, slippery elm powder, drinkable aloe vera juice, or charcoal, along with the general immune stimulating techniques already listed," says Dr. Chambreau. "If you are treating the animal at home and the animal is not responding, or if he begins to feel lethargic and weak, or if his vomiting or diarrhea increases in frequency or severity, then you need to seek the care of a holistic or conventional veterinarian."

"Distemper can be a digestive tract disease or pneumonia-causing respiratory disease and can become a neurologic disease, causing seizures." Distemper is less common today and is usually seen as 'outbreaks' in shelters and puppy mills.

Very often, the early stage of distemper includes runny eyes, coughing, and/or sneezing, with marked nasal discharge. "Again," says Dr. Chambreau, "you would assume that the dog has some 'disease' and definitely is demonstrating an imbalance in its underlying energy field, so you would build up the immune system non-specifically with vitamin C, and possibly administer some herbs for upper respiratory problems, such as coltsfoot, wild cherry, capsicum, marshmallow, goldenseal, or lobelia. If the dog begins to get more ill and the discharges become yellow, green, or thicker, yellower, and greener, and/or concurrently develops diarrhea or loss of appetite, you should seek the care of a holistic or conventional veterinarian."

What if the animal is vomiting and cannot keep the food and supplements down? She explains, "When dogs or cats are vomiting, there are different remedies that can be tried. If an animal can't keep any food down, the best way to treat him is with subcutaneous or intravenous fluids and homeopathic remedies. Homeopathic remedies, although they are given in the mouth, are absorbed instantly and do not have to be swallowed and processed by the stomach as do herbs, minerals, vitamins and other supplements. If the vomiting is only occasional, like 2-3 times a day, then aloe vera juice, slippery elm, or herbal extracts can be used. I have found that the Animals' Apawthecary herbs from PetSage are helpful and can be given in much lower quantities than are recommended on the bottle while still being effective. This can help prevent the vomiting from getting worse.


"Panleukopenia, although it is called cat distemper and has some similarity to dog distemper, it's a very different disease in that it causes overall lowering of the white blood cells in the body. 'Pan' means all, and 'leukopenia' means low white blood cells. So it causes all the types of white blood cells to decrease in their production. Since white blood cells are responsible for the immune system and for combating specific diseases, this definitely weakens the cat.

"The symptoms of cats with Panleukopenia are very variable. Often there is appetite loss. The coat looks dry and dull, or seems to stand on end; the animal is not grooming himself. Often he will sit with his head over the water bowl, vomiting when he eats anything. There is also a high fever and a smelly diarrhea, often with blood.

"From a holistic perspective, you will ideally be observing your cats carefully and regularly for any symptoms of illness at all. You may first notice the cat being off his food, or just not feeling as healthy as usual. At this point you could begin consulting your holistic health for animals book, of which there are now many and the list is growing, for how to combat infection in general with garlic, vitamin C, echinacea, and goldenseal. Anitra Frasier gives directions on how to prepare her high calcium chicken broth for cats. Many catteries have reported that feeding this is the best way for cats to recover from many illnesses, including very early cat distemper. If the cat worsens, go to your holistic or conventional veterinarian. A blood profile would indicate the scarcity of the white blood cells, indicating Panleukopenia, for which intensive homeopathic or Chinese medical care would be needed."

"Feline Leukemia Virus disease (FLV) is a disease of the bone marrow, lymph nodes, and lymphatic system. It causes suppression of the immune system in general; therefore it can appear with very many different symptoms. When symptoms appear, we can treat the animal until the symptoms subside and the animal recovers. We may never know if the cat had FLV.

"FLV is a disease that can simmer - the cat can test positive, indicating that he actually has the FLV virus in his body, yet may not show symptoms for many years. Testing is recommended for any kitten being brought into the barn or into the household. Sometimes a kitten will test positive, and with good, general holistic care can remain symptom-free for 2, 8, 10, or more years or for his entire life. However, all of a sudden some stress may propel him into reacting to the virus that's been sitting in his body and he can become very ill at that point. Therefore, the treatment for FLV, because of its effect on the entire body and the immune system, is largely stimulation of the immune system.

"If FLV is diagnosed by blood test and the cat is acting sick, you should be working with a holistic practitioner. Conventional veterinarians have basically no treatments to cure FLV. The success rate with holistic practitioners of cats that are not severely, quickly ill is probably 90%. Cats who are FLV positive and are not ill can, with continued holistic treatment, become FLV negative, meaning they've gotten rid of the virus. It shows up on the tests, and it has happened many times. The blood of a cat can show the FLV virus and a month later no longer show the FLV virus but would show the antibodies to the FLV. According to Dr. Schultz, by the time a cat reaches 6 months of age its ability to produce antibodies against FLV is better than the vaccine's ability to induce them; therefore he does not recommend vaccinating against FLV. Positive cats can turn negative after a month or two, treatment or no treatment, therefore, some holistically treated cats might have turned negative without treatment. But there are definitely other cats who have been positive for years, and after holistic treatment they've become negative.

Feline AIDS is also a viral disease and presents with symptoms very similar to FLV. Although caused by different viruses, both Feline AIDS and FLV suppress the immune system thereby causing a wide variety of symptoms. Basically everything that we say about FLV can apply to Feline AIDS because they are so similar." The testing for each differs, and with Feline AIDS symptoms may take 10 years to manifest as it is a slower-acting virus.


Because vaccinating for diseases may be more harmful in the long run than the diseases, many people are interested in homeopathic nosodes (homeopathic remedies prepared from the disease substances; see NHM Volume 1, Issues 1 and 2, Boosting Immunity - Nosodes, Vaccines, Health) for protection. "Although using the energetic form of the disease seems like a wonderful idea, and some homeopathic practitioners do use nosodes, the evidence for their efficacy in long term protection is unknown," says Dr. Chambreau. "Because they have not been proved (the testing that is done for most homeopathic remedies) we do not know how these nosodes impact the body."

Nosodes, however, can be very effective in protecting against disease after an animal has been exposed to disease. Dr. Chambreau explains, "Suppose a friend and her dogs visit your barn, and a few days afterward tells you that one of her dogs has just been diagnosed with parvo disease and is very ill. If your dog is showing any of the slightest signs of symptoms indicating illness, then would be the time to give the parvo nosode. We would give the 200c potency, for instance, one time, and of course, begin the other general immune stimulating things we talked about earlier. This is the best and most historical use for homeopathic nosodes. Again, the best protection for an animal is not the vaccine, and not the homeopathic nosode, but building up his overall health while observing him carefully for any minor problem. It's a good idea to record your observations in a journal to monitor the animal's overall health."

Health is the best protection

"A healthy animal, when exposed to any of these viruses, is unlikely to become ill with any symptoms. The viral diseases are out there, but they're no different than any other diseases," she points out. "Rather than being afraid of viral diseases, it is smarter to be afraid of the consequences of vaccinating. And it's better to keep the animal healthy overall and to build up health from the inside rather than trying to protect against everything," says Dr. Chambreau.

"The keys to keeping animals healthy are a good diet, minimal vaccination or none at all [though laws prevent this], a good environment, and holistic treatment anytime they get ill. Environmental stresses, emotional stresses, physical stresses, as well as viral stresses are what can change the health status of our animals. It's important to remember that health is a journey that we are all on with our animals; it's not a place that we get to and we stay there. From a holistic standpoint, the goal is to have the animal be more active, more playful, and feeling better overall. Improving the animal's health holistically is the best protection against getting viral diseases. Merely covering up symptoms by giving the animal a steroid shot if they are scratching and pulling out their hair, putting drops in the ears for ear infections, or treating stiffness and lameness merely with aspirin or steroids will not improve the overall health status," she says. "So by treating every symptom holistically instead and continuing to treat the animal until his overall health status improves, your healthier animal will be much less likely to get viral diseases."


This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace veterinary or other professional care. Always include your holistic veterinarian in the care of your pets.

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Dr. Christina Chambreau for her help in preparing this article and Shelley Epstein, VMD, for its review.

Christina Chambreau, DVM has been practicing homeopathy since 1983 and teaches holistic health for animals and how to understand and use homeopathy to various groups around the country. One of the founders of the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy, she can be reached about her courses at Her practice is full at this time, and she recommends the referral list of the AVH to select your homeopathic veterinarian.

The Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy installed its new board of directors on March 1, 2000. The AVH is a veterinary organization committed to establishing and maintaining high standards of homeopathic veterinary practice. Members are veterinarians from the United States and Canada who believe that homeopathy, properly practiced, is beneficial for animal health. The Academy web site,, has a referral list of member veterinarians who will treat animals using homeopathy, including some who can consult by telephone. This list is also available by phone at 305-652-1590. The current board members are Drs. Karen Komisar (Boston, MA), Larry Bernstein (Miami, FL), Jim Schacht (Charlotte, NC), Sid Storozum (Lynchburg, VA), Judy Herman (Augusta, ME), Shelley Epstein (Wilmington, DE) and David Evans (Nova Scotia).

For more information:

The Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy

751 N.E. 168th St.

N. Miami, FL 33162-2427



4313 Wheeler Avenue

Alexandria, Virginia 22304



800-PET-HLTH (738-4584)

Helpful books:

Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine by Allen M Schoen, DVM and Susan G. Wynn, DVM, Eds.

4 Paws, 5 Directions by Cheryl Schwartz, DVM

Love, Miracles and Animal Healing by Allen M Schoen, DVM

Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard Pitcairn, DVM and Susan Pitcairn

How to Have a Healthier Dog by W. Bellfield and M. Zucker

The Very Healthy Cat Book by W. Bellfield and M. Zucker

Veterinarian's Guide to Natural Remedies for Cats. by Martin Zucker

Veterinarian's Guide to Natural Remedies for Dogs. by Martin Zucker

The New Natural Cat by Anitra Frazier

The Homeopathic Treatment of Small Animals by Christopher Day, VetMB, VetFFHom

Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs by Don Hamilton

The Nature of Animal Healing by Martin Goldstein

The Complete Herbal Handbook for Dogs and Cats by Juliette de Bairacli Levy

The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care by C. J. Puotinen

Natural Remedies for Dogs and Cats by C. J. Puotinen

Herbs for Pets by Mary Wulff-Tilford