Weather Updates

Dog distemper traced to local pet shop chain

Dakotpuppy is dealing with distemper.  |Submitted photo

Dakota the puppy is dealing with distemper. |Submitted photo

storyidforme: 24625452
tmspicid: 9041110
fileheaderid: 4114873

Distemper facts

The Humane Society of the United States offers these precautions regarding distemper:

• Poor veterinary care standards at puppy mills that sell to pet stores may be to blame for distemper outbreaks traced to stores.

• In December 2010, the Associated Press reported that approximately 1,200 dogs at a puppy mill in Kansas were euthanized by state authorities after puppies that had been shipped from the facility to pet stores in Wyoming tested positive for distemper. The owner of that facility, Jeff Fortin, had a history of documented Animal Welfare Act violations for unsanitary conditions and inadequate veterinary care.

• The Humane Society urges people who want to get a puppy to consider adopting from a shelter or rescue group first. If deciding to buy from a breeder, potential buyers should always visit the breeder in person to see that the dogs are treated humanely and ensure the puppies and their parents are living in spacious, clean areas.

For more information, see

Updated: April 28, 2012 4:09PM

The owner of a local pet store chain this week said he has taken steps to contain the contagion of distemper after at least two puppies he sold developed the potentially fatal virus, and one of them died.

The two cases were traced to Happiness Is Pets stores in Naperville and Downers Grove.

Ronald Berning, who owns both stores, said the pair of illnesses was “an extremely isolated incident.” He said the company has received reports of distemper that amount to about 1 percent of the puppy sales in its five stores over the past 60 days.

Dakota was among that 1 percent, and she was the lucky survivor of the two cases identified.

When Aurora resident Bryan Phillips and his girlfriend spotted the 10-week-old dachshund at the Naperville pet store in early December, she appeared docile, as puppies go. Playing with her in an area designated for pets and their potential owners, she trembled a little.

“We didn’t think too much about it, because it’s kind of cold in there,” Phillips said.

When they went back two weeks later to bring her home, she seemed a little short of breath. Phillips said the store employees emphasized that Dakota should be checked out by a veterinarian they recommended, as soon as he could get her over there.

The local vet appeared unconcerned about the dog’s apparent discomfort.

“They said, ‘It’s no big deal,’ and gave her an antibiotic,” Phillips said.

But when he researched the medication and learned it isn’t often given to puppies, he took Dakota to a clinic near where he works in Addison for a second opinion. The diagnosis they heard was jarring.

The documentation showing Dakota was suffering from distemper brought a refund of the $854.79 he had paid for the dog, but she’s still not a normal puppy. Now 4 months old, she needs medication and struggles with the side effects of distemper. Her eyes still discharge because they can’t produce tears, and her gastrointestinal woes haven’t gone away.

“Poor dog’s been on four different antibiotics and five eye drops,” Phillips said. “There’s neurological issues, there’s gastrointestinal issues, there’s deformity issues that could affect her paw.”

Berning said he doesn’t think the outbreak originated in either of his stores or the breeders that supply them.

“We could not confirm the origin of the virus, however, we believe the likely source was a potential customer’s own dog,” he wrote in an email this week. “Therefore, as a protective measure of the puppies in our store and our customer’s dogs, we have immediately ceased the option of allowing customers to bring in their own dog to ‘meet’ with a puppy prior to purchasing him/her.”

Kathleen Summers thinks it is more likely the illness came from a puppy mill – the term given to a kennel where dogs are bred in unhealthy conditions.

“Of all the other dogs that these puppies are exposed to, they’re exposed mainly to other puppies in the puppy mill and to other dogs in the store,” said Summers, director of outreach and research for the Humane Society of the United States’ Puppy Mills campaign.

As for the occurrence in two puppies from two different stores, Berning surmised that the virus was passed when a dog was moved from one location to the other.

“At the request of a customer, we will transfer a puppy from one location to another, which is how we believe it was spread,” he wrote.

Symptoms of distemper can include fever, poor appetite, eye and nasal discharge, respiratory distress and diarrhea. When the virus is traced to a seller of dogs, the Humane Society takes notice.

“Distemper is just one of the few diseases that are common in puppies,” Summers said. “It’s been more uncommon recently, because it’s relatively easy to prevent with proper sanitation and vaccinations. That’s why it’s sort of alarming to hear of it happening now.”

It was not immediately clear how many dogs were affected by the virus at the two stores. An employee at one of the five clinics to which the stores refer dog owners said at least six unsold puppies from Happiness Is Pets had to be euthanized because they exhibited distemper after being in contact with a puppy that was confirmed with the disease. However, several attempts to obtain Berning’s confirmation of the report were unsuccessful.

Happiness Is Pets has come under fire for its sale of puppies in the past. When picketers demonstrated outside a location Berning owned in Warrenville five years ago, alleging the chain was selling unhealthy animals, he sued a local couple for defamation, product disparagement and interfering with business relations.

He said he is confident the virus no longer endangers the puppies for sale at his store.

“Happiness Is Pets stands behind the health of every puppy that leaves our store,” he wrote. “At this time, both we and our veterinarians strongly believe that no puppies in the store are at any risk of infection.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.