Written by Haley Dinwiddie
Are you familiar with canine distemper? If not, it may be time to familiarize yourself.
What is it?
Canine distemper is a disease in dogs, ferrets, and many wildlife species including raccoons, skunks, mink, wolves, and foxes. Canine distemper is caused by a virus that is similar to the virus that causes measles in people. Distemper typically affects young puppies who have not been vaccinated as well as non-vaccinated older dogs.
How do dogs contract distemper?
Canine distemper is highly contagious. The virus spreads through contaminated respiratory secretions secondary to sneezing or coughing. If an infected dog is sharing food and water bowls, toys, or bedding, the disease can be passed to other household pets using those same items. Puppies can also become infected in utero if the mother is infected.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms associated with distemper can include discharge from the eyes and nose, red eyes, fever, lethargy, coughing, and pneumonia. The gastrointestinal tract is also commonly affected, which results in decreased appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. Distemper also affects the nervous system, which can lead to twitching and involuntary movements known as myoclonus, facial seizures (“chewing gum seizures”), poor balance, head tilt, and circling behaviors. Puppies can develop thickened, crusty foot pads known as “hard pad”.
How is it diagnosed?
A diagnosis of distemper can be established if the complete array of clinical signs is present and there is no history of vaccination. However, if isolated clinical signs are present, the diagnosis can be more challenging. In that case, a variety of blood tests are used to solidify the diagnosis.
How is it treated?
There is no cure or specific treatment for distemper. Because it is a virus, antibiotics are only used if there is a secondary bacterial infection present. Supportive treatment is provided depending on what symptoms are present. This may require hospitalization for fluid therapy, medications to control vomiting and diarrhea, oxygen support for dogs with pneumonia, and nutritional support. Dogs that are severely affected may not survive, even with aggressive support. Dogs that do survive the initial illness will likely have chronic neurologic symptoms such as myoclonus, behavioral changes, or changes in balance.
How can it be prevented?
Distemper can be effectively prevented with vaccination. Dogs should be vaccinated when they are puppies, starting no earlier than 6-8 weeks, and receive a booster every 3-4 weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age. A booster is administered 1 year later, and then is required every 3 years.
Puppies should avoid interaction with other dogs and wildlife until their vaccine series is complete. To maximize protection from distemper, avoid any gaps between booster vaccines, especially during the puppy series. Watch for vaccine reminders from your dog’s veterinary office and set reminders for yourself to stay on top of your dog’s wellness care.
You should also avoid interaction with wildlife by keeping your dog on a leash while hiking or out walking. It’s important to realize that not every dog is vaccinated, so socializing with other dogs, taking them to a puppy or obedience class, or going to doggy day care could increase the chance of them being exposed to canine distemper.
If you notice your dog showing similar symptoms as those listed above, it is important to schedule a visit to your veterinarian right away, especially if your pet has encountered a diseased animal. For further questions, contact your veterinarian.
*Reviewed by Dr. Jenna Dockweiler