Canine Distemper: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Canine Distemper
A Deadly Dog Disease

“Puppies less than six months old are more likely to develop
this disease than are older pets.”

Canine distemper is a viral disease that affects dogs, foxes, coyotes, wolves, skunks, raccoons, and ferrets. The disease is life threatening and highly contagious. When a dog becomes infected, he has about a 50:50 chance of survival.

In the past, distemper was an incredibly common cause of serious illness and death in dogs. We now have very effective vaccines that have greatly reduced the incidence of this disease, but dog owners should still be aware of the risk that it poses.

Overview/Snapshot of the Disease

The distemper virus is shed in large numbers in the respiratory secretions, saliva, and urine of infected dogs. A susceptible dog becomes infected when the virus invades his nose or mouth and then starts to reproduce itself and travel throughout the dog’s body.

At his point, a race is on between the pet?s immune system and the replicating virus. Depending on if and where the distemper virus gets the upper hand, symptoms develop that correspond with infection of the respiratory tract, eyes, skin, and neurologic system.

Puppies less than six months old are more likely to develop this disease than are older pets. However, unvaccinated dogs of any age can get canine distemper.

Canine Distemper Symptoms

Clinical signs of distemper in dogs depend on which organ systems become infected with the virus. If the dog is able to mount a rapid and effective immune response, few if any symptoms may be noticed. Other dogs, however, will become gravely ill.

The first signs that develop are often fever, a poor appetite, discharge from the eyes and nose, coughing, and difficulty breathing. As the disease progresses, dogs generally start to vomit and have diarrhea. An unusual thickening of the footpads and nose may also be seen.

Some dogs may appear to be recovering at this point, but they are not yet out of the woods. The virus can still invade the central nervous system, which produces some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Snapping or clicking of the jaws (classically called a “chewing gum fit”)
  • Weakness
  • Tremors
  • Loss of balance
  • Seizures

When a dog develops neurologic signs, the chances for recovery are poor.

Causes of Canine Distemper

Susceptible dogs develop this potentially deadly disease when they come in contact with the causative virus and are unable to mount an effective immune response before the virus gains a foothold in their body. Other dog diseases that are more common these days can cause similar symptoms.

Consequently, your veterinarian may need the results of blood work, a urinalysis, fecal examinations, x-rays, and specific tests for canine parvovirus and distemper before being able to tell you if your dog has distemper.

Canine Distemper Treatment

There is no specific therapy against the virus that causes distemper in dogs. Veterinarians will often treat an infected dog with intravenous fluids, nutritional support, and antibiotics to ward off secondary bacterial infections in order to give the pet?s immune system the time necessary to destroy the virus.

Other treatments will be given as the dog’s symptoms warrant. For example, anti-nausea medications if vomiting is a problem.

Prevention of Distemper in Dogs

The best way to prevent distemper is by having your dog vaccinated against this disease. Puppies need to complete their entire vaccination series before they can be considered immune. Adult dogs should receive boosters on a schedule recommended by a veterinarian.

If your dog is diagnosed with canine distemper and recovers, he may shed the virus for several weeks or months after his symptoms disappear. Therefore, isolating recovering dogs is extremely important to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.

Consulting Veterinarian: Jennifer Coates, DVM

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