Canine Distemper

This viral disease is caused by the single-stranded paramyxovirus, a close relative of the measles. Although dogs in the United States are routinely vaccinated against distemper, the disease remains a threat in strays and other dogs who are not, for whatever reason, kept current on their immunizations.

Does distemper affect animals other than dogs?

Unvaccinated dogs have been known to pass along distemper to many species of wildlife, having nearly led to the extinction of the black-footed ferret. Ferrets, in general, seem especially susceptible to the disease, and those kept as household pets should be immunized. Tasmanian tigers were likely wiped out by distemper, and the lion population in Serengeti, Tanzania has been reduced by as much as 20% due to the disease.

Distemper can affect most domesticated animals, although feline distemper is a totally different disease. The virus can infect humans, but causes no symptoms.

How does the virus spread?

The method of transmission is similar to that of the common cold. When an infected dog sneezes or coughs, he expels infected aerosol droplets, which can be picked up by other animals. Contact with other bodily fluids such as tears, feces, and urine may also cause infection, as can eating food or drinking water contaminated with any of these bodily fluids.

Dog with distemper sneezes
Distemper is spread much like the common cold.

About three to six days after the infectious contact, the animal will develop a fever, and his white blood cell count will be low. He may not want to eat, and he may have a runny nose and gooey eyes. The fever will go away after about four days, but then will reappear 11 to 12 days after the infection started. This fever will last at least a week.

What does distemper do to a dog?

After reproducing itself in the bronchial lymph nodes and tonsils, the virus moves into the bloodstream to infect other lymphatic tissues. It then spreads to the respiratory tract, the digestive tract, the urinary tract, the central nervous system and the nerves serving the eyes.

In the lymphatic system, distemper causes immunosuppression, which makes the dog susceptible to other infections. It also destroys the protective myelin sheaths around nerves. The foot pads may become thickened.

Foot pad of a dog
Distemper may thicken the foot pads

When the digestive tract becomes involved, the dog will have vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, loss of appetite, and weight loss. In addition, the dog will produce excessive amounts of saliva, drooling more than usual. Respiratory symptoms include labored breathing, coughing, and a runny nose.

As the disease advances to the central nervous system, the brain and spinal cord become inflamed, which can cause the dog to lose control of his bowels and bladder. In addition, the dog may begin to have muscle twitches and / or seizures. The combination of jaw muscle twitches, excessive salivation, and seizures are often called “chewing gum fits”, but are technically known as distemper myoclonus.

The dog may become very sensitive to touch, pain, and light. His motor coordination will begin to suffer, and the dog will stumble, fall to the side, or walk around in circles. These neurologic symptoms may develop as soon as 10 days after infection or may take months to develop. The dog may appear to be symptom free, then suddenly develop the neurologic symptoms characteristic of distemper.

How will my vet diagnose my dog?

The early symptoms of canine distemper are often mistaken for other viral diseases like hepatitis, herpes, parainfluenza, and leptospirosis. Common blood tests will reveal an abnormally low lymphocyte and platelet count. Calluses on the nose and foot pads are highly indicative of the disease, which is sometimes called “hard pad disease.” If the dog’s vaccination history is incomplete or unknown, your vet might suspect distemper from the start. However, confirmation of the diagnosis of distemper is achieved by finding the virus in the conjunctival cells covering the eyeball.

Drooling dog
Excessive salivation is another symptom of distemper.

What is the treatment for distemper?

Distemper is not curable, and only a few dogs will eventually recover from the disease. The only infection which kills dogs at a higher rate is rabies. Recovery depends on the dog having a very strong immune system which can kill the virus before it reaches the central nervous system. However, this disease can hide from the immune system, causing neurologic symptoms long after the dog was assumed to be virus-free.

Treatment is aimed at supporting your dog while his immune system combats the disease. Your vet may provide antibiotics to treat any secondary infections that develop due to the suppression of the immune system, IV fluids may be given to prevent dehydration, and nutritional supplements may help dogs who refuse to eat.

Dog refusing to eat
Distemper can cause dogs to lsoe their appetite.

How is distemper prevented?

Puppies will get some immunity from their mother’s milk if the mama dog has been vaccinated. However, by about 4 months of age, the immunity gained from the mother will wear off if not boosted by vaccination of the puppy. Most dogs who fall victim to the disease are puppies who do not receive proper vaccinations. In areas where dogs are not routinely immunized, the disease runs rampant in dogs of all ages.

The vaccine most commonly used is a combination of agents effective against distemper, parvovirus, and some of the infections that cause kennel cough. In some areas, vaccination is mandatory.

Dogs who have distemper can shed the virus into their environment for months, even after their own symptoms disappear. Therefore, any dog who is diagnosed with distemper must be quarantined for several months, to prevent the spread of the disease.

In addition, care should be taken to disinfect the environment to kill the virus before it can infect others. The distemper virus can live for only a few hours at room temperature, but in shady areas, it may live for weeks. The virus can survive freezing and thawing in a dark environment. Common household cleaners will kill the virus and should be used prior to bringing another dog into any environment where a dog with distemper has been.

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