Canine Distemper is a contagious, very serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of unvaccinated puppies and non-immunized older dogs. It can also be seen in wildlife such as foxes, wolves, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, mink and ferrets and has been reported in lions, tigers, leopards and other wild cats as well as seals.
Canine distemper belongs to the class of viruses called Morbillivirus, and is compared to the measles virus, in humans. Puppies and dogs most often become infected through airborne exposure, via sneezing and coughing, from an infected dog or wild animal. The virus can also be transmitted by shared food and water bowls and equipment. Infected dogs can shed the virus for months even when they are no longer showing symptoms, and mother dogs can pass the virus through the placenta to their puppies.
Initially, infected dogs will develop watery to mucoid discharge from their eyes and nose. They can then develop a fever, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite, vomiting, and swelling of the lymph nodes. As the virus attacks the nervous system, infected dogs develop circling behavior, head tilt, muscle twitches, convulsions with jaw chewing movements and salivation (often called “chewing gum fits”), seizures, attacks of hysteria and partial or complete paralysis. The virus may also cause the footpads to thicken and harden, leading to its nickname “hard pad disease.” In wildlife the infection closely resembles rabies.
Veterinarians diagnose canine distemper through clinical appearance and laboratory testing. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this disease and it is sometimes fatal. Treatment, therefore, is heavily focused on alleviating the symptoms. If the animal has become anorexic or has diarrhea intravenous fluids may be required. Discharge from the eyes and nose must be cleaned away regularly. Antibiotics may be prescribed to control the symptoms caused by a secondary bacterial infection and, or pneumonia, and phenobarbitals and potassium bromide may be needed to control convulsions and seizures. There are no antiviral drugs that are effective in treating the disease and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage.
As you may have already figured out preventing this disease is way easier than treating it, and vaccination is a crucial part of this. It is included in the CORE vaccine along with Parvovirus and Adenovirus.
- A series of vaccinations, starting at 6-8 weeks of age, is administered to puppies to help build immunity because the immune system has not yet fully matured.
- Avoid gaps in the immunization schedule and make sure distemper vaccinations are up to date.
- Avoid contact with infected animals and wildlife
- Use caution when socializing puppies or unvaccinated dogs at parks, puppy classes, obedience classes, doggy day care and other places where dogs can congregate.
- Pet ferrets should be vaccinated against canine distemper using an approved ferret vaccine.