Distemper is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease that affects dogs, puppies, and many species of animals. Distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV) and targets multiple body systems – respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems – and has a death rate of up to 80 percent. Even after recovering, this disease can have lasting effects, making distemper virus one of the most dangerous pathogens your dog can encounter.
How distemper spreads
Distemper is transmitted between dogs by coughing or sneezing, or through common objects such as bowls of food and water. Distemper can be passed on to their pups from pregnant dogs, and dogs that interact with infected wildlife are also at risk.
Any dog can potentially get distemper, but puppies under 12 months of age and unvaccinated dogs are at greatest risk. Dogs in crowded environments such as animal shelters, farms, and pet stores are particularly at risk due to continued close contact and the challenges of maintaining proper hygiene.
Signs and symptoms of distemper in dogs
Not only can distemper can be difficult to diagnose during early onset because signs and symptoms may be mild or absent, but it is often confused with other diseases with similar clinical signs. Veterinarians diagnose distemper by taking a medical history, evaluating clinical symptoms, and performing laboratory tests. Common signs and symptoms of distemper include:
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- to cough
- Discharge from the eyes and nose
- Diarrhea or vomiting that sets in quickly
Since distemper also affects the nervous system, the signs and symptoms listed above may be accompanied by:
- Muscle twitching
- Head tilt
- Nystagmus (rapid, uncontrolled eye movement)
Dogs can be infected with distemper for up to four weeks before getting sick. It is therefore important that they be seen by a veterinarian immediately after any signs and symptoms appear.
Treatment and recovery
There is currently no cure for distemper. Treatment for distemper consists of hospitalization and supportive care. Several factors can influence the success of treatment and the speed of recovery, including age, vaccination status, general health, and how quickly the dog’s immune system responds to the infection.
- Intravenous fluids and nutrients for dehydration and malnutrition
- Antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections
- Medicines to relieve vomiting / diarrhea
- Sedatives to control seizures
- Analgesics for pain relief
- Steroids if cerebral edema (swelling around the brain) is suspected
Even when a dog recovers from an acute distemper infection, the effects of the virus can cause varying degrees of neurological damage, deterioration of tooth enamel and hardening of the nose and foot pads. In some cases, the neurological symptoms of distemper can be controlled with medication. However, this will depend on the severity of the symptoms and the dog’s quality of life.
After clinical recovery, dogs can shed the distemper virus for up to four months. Hence, they should be kept away from unvaccinated puppies or other areas where dogs congregate. Follow-up tests can help your veterinarian determine when it is safe to reintroduce recovered dogs into the general population.
Vaccinations and safe habits are the best defense against distemper in dogs. Distemper vaccine (DHLPP) should be given to puppies six weeks of age, repeated every three to four weeks until the puppy is 16 weeks old, and then given once a year. Keep puppies away from areas where dogs congregate and separate them from other unvaccinated or potentially infected dogs until the vaccination course is complete.
It is also important to keep dogs away from wildlife as distemper can be carried by raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and other forest animals.
Canine distemper virus is not particularly robust outside of the body and cannot remain in the environment for long periods of time, so cleaning logs are relatively easy to maintain. Diluted bleach and most household disinfectants kill the virus. A long wait after hygiene is usually not necessary. In addition to cleaning, always remove exposed bedding, toys, and food / water bowls.
Cases of distemper infections in pets have been drastically reduced with the introduction of vaccines, but it still remains a regular cause of death in stray or unvaccinated populations.