Canine Distemper - What Dog Owners Need to Know

If you’re like a lot of dog owners, you’re used to your dog receiving a certain set of vaccines during his/her annual wellness visit. When the vaccines are due, they’re due, and, hopefully, you consider them part of a standard preventive care routine. 

The rabies shot is the most familiar vaccine that's part of your dog’s wellness care plan, and you're also probably (at least) familiar with the names of the other vaccines your dog receives - distemper, parvovirus, leptospirosis, and more. But, besides the names, do you know what happens if your dog actually contracts any of those diseases?

Since most people (luckily) aren't very familiar with most of the diseases prevented by these vaccines, we want to take this opportunity to tell you about them. Today, we're talking about Canine Distemper Virus (CDV).


What is Canine Distemper?

CDV is a highly contagious, potentially fatal disease that attacks the “respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs” (source). It isn't limited just to domestic dogs, though. Many other species, including urban wildlife like raccoons and skunks, can be affected as well.

In addition to dogs and urban wildlife, CDV was responsible for killing 30% of the lion population in Serengeti National Park in 1994 and has decimated already endangered populations of foxes, ferrets, and seals world-wide. Those animals were infected after coming into contact with infected (and un-vaccinated) domestic dogs.


How could my dog get distemper?

If your dog comes into contact with an infected animal, s/he is at risk for developing distemper. The most common mode of transmission is airborne, such as through coughing or sneezing. But shared toys and dishes can also put your dog at risk since nasal discharge carries large amounts of virus. Infected mother dogs can pass the infection to their puppies through the placenta.

The most common places for dogs to come in contact with the virus are kennels, shelters, and other places where there are large numbers of dogs of varying vaccination statuses. Additionally, your dog could be exposed after coming into contact with infected local wildlife (like racoons).


How do I know if my dog is infected?

Even toys can be a route to spread distemper in dogsThe first signs of distemper infection are a high fever and watery nose and eyes. An infected dog will also become lethargic and will likely lose interest in food. Coughing is also common, and your dog may develop secondary pneumonia. As the infection progresses, dogs will have stomach issues, including vomiting and diarrhea. In later stages, the virus attacks the nervous system, and infected dogs may develop seizures, twitching, paralysis, and other issues.

While there “are many diseases that cause coughing, fever, loss of appetite or seizures,” The Drake Center for Veterinary Care explains, “this combination is unique to canine distemper.” To be sure of a diagnosis, your vet will likely run serological tests and begin aggressive treatment. 


How is this disease treated?

Distemper is a virus (one that's closely related to the measles). That means there's no medication that will “kill” or “cure” it. However, aggressive care, including intravenous fluids, antibiotics to fight secondary infections, cough suppressants, seizure medications, etc., can provide the support needed for recovery. For distemper cases, hospitalization is necessary to get the full range of nursing care, to increase the chances of recovery, and to reduce the risk of infection to other animals.

Distemper can be fatal, so it's a disease that we take very seriously. Dogs can recover, but there is often permanent damage to the nervous system.


How do I keep my dog safe from distemper?

Distemper is a serious, potentially fatal, illness in dogsPrevention of infection is key. Distemper vaccination should be part of the standard puppy series of vaccines. Into adulthood, dogs should be vaccinated annually or every three years, depending on the veterinarian’s recommendations as dogs age. While no vaccine can absolutely, 100% guarantee that a dog will never become ill, this preventative measure is the best line of defense.

Of course, the more pets are vaccinated, the better, because it reduces the likelihood of infection within a whole community. The Merck Veterinary Manual says, “With the potential increasing virulence of emerging strains and the wide host range of canine distemper virus, widespread vaccination of domestic dogs is essential.


If your dog is due for the distemper vaccine -- or any other important veterinary care services -- please be sure to make an appointment. And if you have any questions regarding your dog’s health, don’t hesitate to contact us!


Blog Category: