Canine distemper is a highly contagious and often fatal viral illness that afflicts dogs. Distemper in dogs attacks various areas in the body, including the brain. Luckily, today’s vaccines are protecting our canine companions from this dreaded disease.
What is Distemper in Dogs?
The canine distemper virus is a member of the paramyxovirus group, the same group to which the human measles virus belongs. In addition to dogs, the distemper virus also affects ferrets, raccoons, badgers, miniature skunks, wild hogs and red pandas. Domestic cats, however, are not susceptible to this particular distemper virus. The most likely canine victims of distemper are puppies between the ages of three and six months of age and adult dogs that are not vaccinated against the virus.
Canine distemper is contracted through exposure to droplets of respiratory secretions that have been coughed, sneezed or discharged by an infected dog. Once a dog is exposed, the virus proceeds to infiltrate the white blood cells of the lymphatic tissues and bloodstream over the course of two to nine days. From that point, the virus spreads to the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems.
Symptoms of Distemper
Symptoms of distemper start to appear within three to six days following infection. The initial symptoms include depression and a high fever, followed by the following signs:
- Discharge from the eyes
- Discharge from the nose
- Loss of appetite
As the disease progresses, the following respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms appear.
At this stage, dogs with distemper are highly susceptible to developing secondary bacterial infections, especially pneumonia. Dogs with distemper also develop thickened tissue on the pads of their paws and on their noses.
Once the distemper virus affects the brain and spinal cord, the following neurological signs and symptoms occur:
- Lack of coordination
Diagnosing Canine Distemper
Once you report your dog’s symptoms to your veterinarian, blood tests will be run to check his white blood cell count. Other specific laboratory tests may also be performed to achieve a confirmed diagnosis of canine distemper.
Treatment for Distemper
There is not an antiviral drug available that is effective against canine distemper, and there is no cure for the virus. Once distemper in dogs has affected the nervous system, there is no effective route to recovery. Dogs that are in earlier stages of the disease must be hospitalized at once, or death will result within two to five weeks from initial infection. These dogs are placed in an isolation unit, where symptomatic treatment and supportive care is administered. Intravenous fluid therapy is crucial for restoring hydration and maintaining electrolyte balances. Medications are administered to treat nausea and diarrhea, and antibiotics are given to prevent secondary bacterial infections. If necessary, medications to control seizures will also be implemented.
The combination of a patient’s strong immune system and a weak strain of the distemper virus contracted will increase the dog’s chances for recovery. According to the Baker Institute of Animal Health at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the canine distemper mortality rate in adult patients is 50 percent, and 80 percent of puppies with distemper will succumb as a result of this viral infection. Death is most often the result of neurological complications from brain damage and seizure activity.
Prevention of Distemper in Dogs
The disease is now rarely seen in household pets due to vaccination protocols. Combination vaccines for dogs include protection against distemper. Maternal immunity is passed to developing puppies through the walls of the mother’s womb, and newborn puppies continue to receive antibodies from their mother’s milk. Once puppies have been weaned from their mother, they must receive a series of inoculations to attain full immunity. Your veterinarian will recommend an effective vaccination schedule after that to protect your adult dog for years to come.