Canine distemper is a contagious viral disease that attacks multiple parts of the body in dogs like the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. The virus has also been present in canidae species like wolves, coyotes, raccoons, and skunks (or “creatures that party in the night” as Dr. Kuecker refers to them). Even ferrets can get distemper!
The distemper virus is airborne meaning that is spread by the spit and mucus particles from an infectious dog. The virus can also be transmitted by fomites like water bowls, equipment and food, or by a mother dog to her puppy through the placenta. Infectious wild animals can also transmit distemper.
STAGE ONE: Pus-like discharge from eyes, fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite, and vomiting.
STAGE TWO: The nervous system becomes infected and dogs begin exhibiting neurological signs like walking in circles, head tilt, muscle twitches, seizures and potentially paralysis – either partial or full.
In wildlife species, the infection symptoms seem to closely resemble rabies.
Unfortunately, pets don’t usually survive distemper. Most that do survive end up having lasting, irreparable damage to their nervous system.
Infected dogs are usually diagnosed by how they present in-clinic, bloodwork, and other laboratory testing. There is currently no cure for distemper, so treatment consists of supportive care: Fluids to replenish hydration that is lost through vomiting/diarrhea, medications to control and reduce vomiting/diarrhea, and medications to help with the neurologic symptoms. Care to prevent secondary infections must also be taken. It is also recommended that infected dogs be isolated from all other dogs to help prevent the spread of the disease.
While all dogs are at risk for acquiring distemper, puppies younger than four months and unvaccinated dogs are at a much higher risk of catching distemper.
Prevention is key!
Consistent and complete vaccination has proven to be extremely effective in preventing our canine friends from contracting distemper. The distemper vaccine is normally combined with some other common vaccines, such as parvovirus, parainfluenza, hepatitis, and sometimes leptospira. We’ll call it the five-in-one special! Along with the rabies vaccine, distemper is considered to be a “core vaccination” that every dog should have.
This vaccination is given as a series. Depending on the age of your dog, your doctor may administer the first distemper vaccine and then have you come back in a couple weeks to re-administer. After that, your dog may only need to be re-vaccinated once a year. As with all vaccinations, the repeated exposure to the virus helps the dog’s immune system build immunity to the disease that they are being vaccinated for.