Distemper in dogs is a highly contagious and often fatal disease that is seen in canines worldwide. It affects multiple body systems, from the nervous system to the brain and spine. Though its prevalence has diminished greatly due to effective vaccinations, distemper cases and outbreaks are still seen sporadically.
What Is Distemper?
Canine distemper is a sometimes fatal virus that can infect a dog at any age, especially puppies if they are not vaccinated or not yet fully protected by a vaccination. It also can infect several other species including ferrets and wild animals such as coyotes, foxes, wolves, skunks, and raccoons.
Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs
Canine distemper causes symptoms in multiple body systems, including the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, brain, and spinal cord. Neurological symptoms of distemper may not develop at all or develop later in the disease (sometimes even after several weeks). The appearance of symptoms and the course of distemper can be variable, ranging from very mild illness to fatal disease. Here are the many symptoms of distemper.
Often a fever that occurs a few days after infection may go unnoticed, and it will usually subside. However, a second fever can occur a few days later when the other symptoms begin to show up.
Discharge is a main symptom of canine distemper. The discharge from the nose and eyes could be somewhat clear and watery, but will more than likely show as pus-like in appearance and texture.
Your dog will likely feel increasingly lethargic as the virus makes its way through its system and causes all of the other symptoms that your pet is trying to manage.
Labored Breathing and Coughing
Any breathing or coughing problems in a dog that has recently been in a shelter or kennel should not be automatically considered as the common "kennel cough." These symptoms could be the onset of pneumonia, which could be associated with distemper.
Hardening of Skin
There may be a tough or crusty coating that is formed on the dog's footpads and/or nose (which is why distemper has sometimes been called "hard pad" disease).
Along with eye discharge, a dog with distemper could experience eye inflammation. The inflammation can appear as swollen or reddened from the irritation and discomfort of the discharge.
Secondary Bacterial Infections
The development of secondary bacterial infections, such as dermatitis or pneumonia, may develop, which can complicate the attempt to diagnose distemper.
As the virus continues to course through your pet's nervous system, your dog may begin to involuntarily twitch its muscles.
Weakness or Paralysis
As the virus hits the central nervous system, your dog may experience slight or complete paralysis. The weakness is most often seen in the hind limbs, but will soon follow by all four limbs becoming non-functional.
Seizures will begin to occur on any part of the body. However, specific seizures that look as if the dog is chewing gum are unique to distemper. The seizures will become more frequent as the disease progresses in the dog's system.
The neurological signs of distemper will appear as uncontrolled and uncoordinated movements, including walking around in circles or your dog may fall on its side and make involuntary paddling movements with its legs. Your dog may also keep its head tilted along with rapid and involuntary eye movements.
This symptom may occur in advanced cases of distemper. Your dog may have an increased sensitivity to your touch or any pain it may feel. In addition, a dog may have an increased sensitivity to light because it is experiencing eye discomfort.
Cause of Distemper
Canine distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus. Animals usually become infected by direct contact with virus particles from the secretions of other infected animals (generally via inhalation). Indirect transmission, carried on dishes or other objects, is not common because the virus does not survive for long in the environment. The virus can be shed by treated dogs for several weeks after recovery.
Puppies under four months of age (before vaccinations are fully protective) and unvaccinated dogs are most at risk. Because canine distemper also occurs in wild animals, contact with wild animals may contribute to the spread of distemper to domestic dogs.
Diagnosing Distemper in Dogs
Because signs are variable and may take time to appear, and secondary infections are common, the diagnosis of distemper can be complicated. Additionally, other infections can produce similar signs to distemper. A variety of laboratory tests, such as blood and smear tests, can help confirm the diagnosis (and some may be done to rule out other infections).
There is no cure for the distemper virus, so treatment involves managing the various symptoms and secondary infections. Even with treatment, distemper can be fatal. Treatment depends on the symptoms shown. Treatments may include the following:
- Fluids to combat dehydration
- Medication to reduce vomiting
- Antibiotics, and other medications to treat pneumonia and secondary infections
- Anticonvulsants to treat seizures
Dogs suspected of having distemper should be isolated from other dogs, and the other dogs should be vaccinated if they are not currently vaccinated. The canine distemper virus does not typically survive long outside the body so thorough disinfection of the home is not as critical as with some other viruses; routine cleaning with any disinfectant should be sufficient.
Check with your vet for recommendations on waiting times to introduce a new puppy to a household with a dog that has been diagnosed with distemper.
Prognosis for Dogs With Distemper
Prognosis depends on various factors such as the timing of treatment and the dog's immune system. However, neurological symptoms may progressively worsen and not respond to treatment. Even with recovery, some neurological effects, such as seizures, may persist in your dog.
How to Prevent Distemper
Vaccination is effective at preventing distemper. Puppies are typically vaccinated starting at six weeks of age and at regular intervals until they are 14 to 16 weeks old (as with other vaccines, the presence of antibodies received from the mother can interfere with vaccines so a puppy is not considered fully protected until the final vaccine in the series has been given).
Vaccination should be repeated a year later, then at regular intervals. Your vet will discuss an appropriate vaccination schedule for your dog based on your dog's history and risk factors.
Until puppies have received all the vaccinations in the series (at 14 to 16 weeks) it is prudent to be careful about exposing them to unknown dogs such as at dog parks to avoid exposure to the virus as much as possible.