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Canine Distemper: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

When welcoming a new canine companion into your life, it is paramount to prioritize their well-being. Learning about the canine diseases that pose a threat to their health and overall wellness is of utmost importance, particularly when it comes to highly contagious and potentially fatal illnesses like distemper.

What is distemper in dogs?

Distemper is a virulent and often deadly viral infection that afflicts not only dogs but also ferrets and various wild animals, including foxes, skunks, and raccoons. Alongside parvovirus, it ranks among the most severe maladies that can afflict dogs, transcending age barriers with puppies being particularly vulnerable. The clinical signs of distemper in older dogs mirror those seen in their younger counterparts.

What causes distemper in dogs?

The root cause of distemper in dogs lies in the paramyxovirus, a pathogen responsible for several other devastating animal diseases such as virulent Newcastle disease in avian species and rinderpest in cattle. This virus typically targets the respiratory system, although certain paramyxoviruses affect the nervous and reproductive systems. It’s noteworthy that distemper is one of the few paramyxoviruses for which a vaccine exists.

Is distemper in dogs contagious?

Distemper in dogs is highly contagious, transmissible through direct contact with infected animals, including transmission from mother to unborn puppies via the placenta. Additionally, it can be airborne, spreading through the respiratory emissions of infected dogs. It can survive briefly in the environment but can be easily eliminated with common disinfectants. Wildlife can also serve as intermediaries, transmitting distemper to dogs.

What are the early distemper symptoms in dogs?

Initial signs of distemper often resemble allergies, featuring watery or purulent eye and nasal discharges. Affected dogs typically lose their appetite, exhibit lethargy, and develop fever. Coughing, diarrhea, and vomiting may also manifest. These symptoms generally emerge within three to six days following infection. Early detection is critical, and veterinary attention should be sought at the onset of symptoms.

What other diseases look like distemper in dogs?

While neurological distemper symptoms in dogs may appear distinctive, other diseases share common signs with distemper. Canine hepatitis, for instance, leads to eye and nasal discharges, while leptospirosis may cause shivering and muscle tenderness. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can induce muscle pain and swelling, mimicking distemper symptoms. Lead poisoning exhibits the most parallels with distemper, including uncoordinated walking, tremors, and seizures. A veterinarian can provide further insight into the implications of these symptoms.

How is distemper diagnosed?

Diagnosis often entails a thorough examination of your dog’s medical history, vaccination records, and clinical presentation. If distemper is strongly suspected, diagnostic testing, such as swabs from the eye or nose or blood tests, may be employed.

How does distemper progress?

Distemper eventually causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. This causes the particularly worrying symptoms of neurological distemper in dogs, which includes circling, head tilts, paralysis, twitching and seizures.

As distemper in dogs progresses, it can cause hyperkeratosis, or “hard pad” symptoms in the nose and paw pads. Essentially, the skin thickens and hardens and can cause discomfort. Secondary infections of the lungs and gastrointestinal tract are also common because distemper compromises the immune system.

What is the prognosis for distemper in dogs?

Distemper in dogs frequently proves fatal, with estimates suggesting a mortality rate of approximately 50% in adults and 80% in puppies. Survival rates vary depending on virus strain, the quality of care received, and the strength of the dog’s immune system. Puppies are especially susceptible due to their underdeveloped immune defenses. Some dogs may recover without progressing to the neurological stage, while others may experience symptoms for an extended period.

Are there long-term effects of distemper in dogs?

If distemper advances to the neurological stage, it can result in enduring effects, including permanent twitches, tremors, seizures, or vision loss. These effects may not become apparent until the dog reaches middle age or beyond.

How do you treat distemper in dogs?

Currently, there is no cure for distemper, and treatment primarily focuses on symptom management to enhance the chances of survival. Isolation from other dogs is crucial to prevent transmission. Hospitalization may be necessary for proper care. Veterinary recommendations may include medications to address symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and neurologic issues, as well as hydration support. While antibiotics won’t treat distemper directly, they may target secondary infections, an integral facet of treatment.

Can you prevent distemper?

Preventing distemper is largely achievable through vaccination. Vaccination, given as part of the DHPP shot (distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus), is among the most effective preventive measures. Puppies can start the vaccination series as early as 6 to 8 weeks and complete it by 16 to 18 weeks. Until fully vaccinated, it’s prudent to limit a puppy’s exposure to unfamiliar dogs, wildlife, and communal dog-related settings.

Read our guide, “Pet Vaccinations: Common Questions Answered by Our Trusted Veterinarian” for more information on vaccinations.

How long is the distemper vaccine good for in dogs?

After the initial three-shot series, puppies require a booster shot at the one-year mark. Adult dogs should receive DHPP boosters every three years. Notably, the DHPP vaccine offers protection against multiple diseases, underscoring the importance of regular boosters.

Are there side effects of the distemper vaccine?

As with any vaccine, the distemper vaccine may induce side effects, including lethargy, loss of appetite, fever, and localized swelling at the injection site. Rarely, allergic reactions may occur, sometimes with delayed onset, necessitating vigilant post-vaccination monitoring. Given the severe consequences of distemper, vaccination is typically recommended.

In conclusion, distemper in dogs is a highly contagious and potentially lethal disease characterized by acute symptoms. On the other hand, prevention through vaccination is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective strategy compared to the challenges and costs of treating the disease.