Distemper in Dogs

  • By: Mick Whitefield
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Distemper in Dogs

Canine distemper is a highly contagious viral canine disease that can affect a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, central nervous system, and the conjunctival membranes of the eyes.  Distemper has symptoms ranging from mild cold-like signs such as a runny nose to fitting seizures and death. It can spread in the air, or via bodily fluids such as urine and saliva. It can remain and live in the environment where an infected dog has been, so cleaning the surroundings is important.  Related to the Human Measles virus it can be fatal which is why vaccination is important. Young and unvaccinated dogs are most at risk.

All dogs are at risk of distemper, but puppies below four months and unvaccinated dogs are particularly susceptible. If your puppy displays any distemper symptoms, contact your vet immediately.

Distemper in Dogs (What to look for)

In most cases the first signs of Canine distemper usually present a yellow or green-coloured discharge from the eyes and nose accompanied by coughing and sneezing leading to a thick mucus from the nose.

Distemper Eyes 2 Distemper In Nose

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Canine distemper is an incurable, multi-systemic disease that affects multiple organs. It primarily affects the central nervous, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems and then often travels to the animal’s brain, causing shaking, trembling, and seizures.

Distemper Nose And Eyes 1

A weakened immune system following the infection leaves a dog open to secondary infections such as pneumonia, it is often the secondary infections that cause the death.

Symptoms can vary a lot depending on the affected organs and how strong is the dog’s immunity system. Common symptoms of the virus include:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Eating less than usual   

While some dogs experience severe symptoms such as tremors, seizures, and difficult breathing, others only seem to have a minor cold with nasal and eye discharge.

As the secondary infections progress, the dog can develop:

  • Chronic generalized tremors
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe vomiting
  • Crusting of the footpads and nose
  • Death, in many cases

While it is primarily common in dogs, distemper can also be seen in animals such as foxes, coyotes, ferrets, skunks, and raccoons. The disease spreads through droplets of infected body secretions from the mouse, nose, and eye.

The disease has no cure and typically treatment consists of supportive care and preventing secondary infections which is why vaccination against this disease is so important.

The Cause and Spread of Distemper

Canine distemper is usually transmitted by respiratory secretions (sneezing and coughing). Infection is usually by direct contact from the secretions of an infected animal generally through inhalation. A dog’s sneeze can potentially spread respiratory droplets up to 25 feet, which makes the risk of exposure more common in enclosed spaces such as kennels. 

Although indirect transmission such as carried on food dishes (from saliva) and contaminated equipment such as kennel floors (from urination) can occur, it’s not common as the virus doesn’t generally survive in the open environment for very long, but clearly a quick kennel change after an infected dog has been in situ can occur without proper cleaning of the kennels.

Dogs themselves however can shed the virus for several weeks or even months after recovery and infected mothers can pass the distemper virus to their puppies through the placenta. Unvaccinated dogs and pups under four months of age are most at risk (before the vaccinations become fully protective).

Because distemper is also seen in wild animals, contact with such animals could contribute to its spread in domestic dogs, so those living in the countryside may need to be careful with young pups.

Diagnosis of Distemper

Diagnosing canine distemper can be challenging.  Canine distemper has no specific test although certain lab tests may help in confirming the diagnosis. You can discuss these tests with your veterinarian in greater detail. Often, it’s based on the age of the dog and clinical signs available.

Although distemper tests do exist, on their own, they are not always reliable. Instead of simply testing for the viral infection, the vet looks at the whole picture which includes a dog’s health history and specific symptoms. Positive results help in confirming an infection although a dog could still be infected despite returning negative results.

If a dog has contracted distemper, the only real available treatment is supportive care. This may include anti-seizure medications, IV fluids, and medications that help control diarrhoea and vomiting. Often, antibiotics are also used to treat and manage any secondary bacterial infections.


Distemper Treatment and Prevention

Dogs diagnosed with distemper and those recovering from the infection should not be mixed with other pets for at least two weeks, even after they stop showing any clinical signs.

The length of infection and survival rate depends on the strength of a dog’s immune system and to some degree the virus strain (like flu, there can be several). Some cases can be resolved as quickly as 10 days while others may exhibit neurological symptoms for several weeks and even months.

Proper vaccination is crucial as it’s the only known way of preventing this serious, often fatal disease. 

Because of the fragile nature of the distemper vaccine, only a veterinarian should perform the vaccinations to ensure proper administration, safe handling, and quality control. 

Ensure that the dog completes the set series of vaccinations or shots. Make sure your puppies get their first vaccination between ages six and eight weeks. Avoid any immunizational schedule gaps and make sure that the vaccinations are kept up to date.

Keep your puppy from any possibly infectious environments or dogs until they have had all of their vaccinations. Also, routinely clean and disinfect your home or the dog’s kennel to ensure that the virus doesn’t get the chance to thrive in your environment.

Distemper treatment aims to help reduce the intensity of the symptoms. This is often accomplished by hospitalization to provide the sick dog with appropriate nursing care such as intravenous fluid therapy as well as symptomatic treatment for the cough, vomiting, diarrhoea, etc. In some cases, anti-inflammatory and anti-seizure medications may be necessary.

Caring for a Dog with Distemper

If you suspect your dog has distemper, he should be isolated from other pets. If not already vaccinated, your other dogs should immediately get their distemper shots. Typically, the distemper virus doesn’t survive for long outside the body, and as such, thoroughly disinfecting the home may not be as critical as compared to some other viruses. However, routine cleaning with a disinfectant is recommended and would hopefully be sufficient.

After the initial puppy distemper vaccine shots, additional boosters should be administered to adult dogs. Your pet’s vet will determine how often booster vaccines should be received. Some canine distemper booster vaccines have recently been approved that only require to be administered every three years.

Consult your vet for recommendations on the best time to introduce a new puppy to a household where a dog has been previously diagnosed with the disease.

The Conclusion to Dog Distemper

Distemper attacks the nervous, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems of dogs and puppies. Although seen worldwide, canine distemper is now less common than it was in the ’70s because of the very successful and widespread use of vaccines. 

The disease is still seen in stray dogs and canine populations where rates of vaccination rates are low. CDV may persist in recovered dogs and wildlife such as raccoons and skunks. It’s therefore essential to keep your dog vaccinated to prevent him from contracting this dreadful killer disease. 

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