Canine distemper is a life threatening viral disease that affects a dog’s lymph nodes, lungs, intestines, bladder and nervous system. A worldwide disease, distemper is fatal in fifty percent of cases, with most deaths occurring in puppies. Fortunately, vaccinations to prevent distemper are available.

Transmission of Distemper

Canine distemper, a highly contagious airborne virus, is spread through contact with contaminated respiratory secretions or infected urine or fecal matter.

However, dogs are not the only animals who can be infected by the distemper virus. Distemper can infect all canine-related animals, such as weasels, ferrets, skunks and raccoons. Cases of distemper have also been confirmed in red pandas, big cats (lions, tigers, etc.), and a species of wild hog known as javelinas.

While big cats are susceptible to canine distemper, the domestic cat does not catch canine distemper. Instead, feline version of distemper manifests itself as a different viral disease called feline panleukemia.

Although cases of canine distemper have been confirmed in humans, these cases have all been asymptomatic (possessing no symptoms). Canine distemper is a paramyxovirus, connecting it to the same family as human measles.

Distemper Progression

Once a dog comes into contact with the viral disease, distemper first invades the lymph nodes and infects the entire lymphatic system within two to four days. Within nine days, distemper has entered the bloodstream and spread to multiple organs within the body.

The viral disease replicates in lymphocytes and macrophages, the white blood cells found within the blood and lymph system. Distemper also builds up in the cells of the intestinal lining.

Distemper Symptoms

Distemper symptoms vary greatly among dogs, with the most severe symptoms and complications developing in young puppies who have immature immune systems. Seven days after infection, the affected dog develops a fever of 103 ° to 106 ° F and becomes depressed. The dog experiences trouble breathing and appears “unkempt.”

Distemper often results in a thickening of the skin on the footpads and over the nose that can persist after the infection. Thickened footpads may affect the dog’s gait so that it appears as though the dog has trouble walking. Puppies whose teeth are still developing may also suffer from deterioration of their teeth enamel.

Distemper can cause a number of symptoms and complications throughout the body, including:

  • conjunctivitis (inflammation of eye membranes)
  • cough
  • dehydration
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • labored breathing
  • loss of appetite
  • pneumonia
  • rhinitis (runny nose)
  • vomiting.

Over the two weeks during which symptoms develop, survival depends on whether the dog produces enough antibodies to combat the distemper virus. Coughing is a bad sign, as it may indicate the presence of a secondary bacterial infection and the development of pneumonia.

Distemper can also result in intestinal inflammation, further weakening the dog by intensifying dehydration. Most dogs also develop encephalomyelitis, or inflammation of the spinal cord and brain, which may cause a wide range of even more complicated symptoms, including:

  • ataxia (loss of muscle coordination)
  • depression
  • deterioration of mental abilities
  • deterioration of motor skills
  • hyperesthesia (sensory sensitivity)
  • myoclonus (disabling muscle twitching/spasms)
  • paralysis
  • paresis (partial paralysis)
  • seizures.

Dogs that develop neurological symptoms tend to have poor disease outcomes. Even if the dog survives the viral disease, neurological damage often necessitates euthanasia.

After three weeks of distemper infection, the viral disease has either proven fatal or the dog has survived. There is one exception to this: neurological damage due to distemper can be delayed as much as three months. Dogs who develop delayed neurological complications often have few or no intestinal or respiratory symptoms prior to the delayed symptoms.

Treatment of Distemper

Because distemper is a viral disease, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Instead, treatment focuses on symptom control and keeping the dog as comfortable as possible as the disease runs its course.

A dog with distemper must be isolated from other dogs to prevent further spread of the viral disease. House the dog in a warm, clean area free of drafts, and keep eyes and nose free of discharge. Watch carefully for signs of dehydration that can proceed rapidly. Severely dehydrated dogs may require intravenous fluids.

Diarrhea and vomiting may be controlled with anti-diarrheals and anti-nausea medications. If seizures are a factor, anti-convulsants may be necessary. While antibiotics have no effect on distemper itself, they may be prescribed to treat or prevent secondary bacterial infections and pneumonia.

If a puppy’s teeth are damaged by distemper, it is possible to have the tooth enamel restored in order to prevent further tooth decay.

Vaccinations and Distemper Prevention

Vaccinations are the best method of distemper prevention. Prior to vaccinations, distemper was the most common deadly canine viral disease. Since the advent of distemper vaccinations the viral disease has become rare in industrialized countries.

Distemper vaccinations are given to puppies after six weeks of age. Prior to this, a vaccinated mother provides maternal distemper antibodies through her milk.

In cases where there is a worry of possible distemper exposure, pups younger than six weeks of age are sometimes administered human measles vaccinations to give them some protection against distemper. Live distemper vaccines are never given to pups younger than four weeks old, as this can be fatal.

After the initial vaccinations at six to eight weeks, puppies receive two additional distemper vaccinations every three to four weeks. After these initial vaccinations, booster shots for distemper are only required every three or four years.

You can further protect your puppy by making sure that he doesn’t come into contact with strange dogs until his vaccinations are complete. While the viral disease is very resistant to cold, it is quickly destroyed by heat, sunlight and bleach. If you need to disinfect areas that may have been contaminated by distemper, a solution of 1:20 household bleach and water will kill the virus.