Distemper in dogs is a contagious disease that affects your pet’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous system but can also infect the membranes of the eye. Distemper is found in dogs and wild animals (raccoons, wolves, foxes, skunks, and fetters) which means you should always limit your pet’s exposure to wildlife or other pets who seem ill.
What is Canine Distemper?
Distemper is part of the Morbillivirus class of virus which also contains the human virus, measles. There is a vaccine available, however puppies or dogs of any age who have not been immunized are more susceptible to the disease. Older dogs or dogs with existing conditions are also particularly susceptible.
Distemper can be spread through direct or indirect contact with an infected animal (sleeping in the same bedding, fluids spread through licking or sniffing, or any altercation) which makes it important to monitor your pet in areas where wildlife are present.
Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs
At first you may think that your dog has a cold, often canine distemper presents with a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, thick mucus coming from the nose or eyes but it is important to take your pets symptoms seriously, especially if your dog has a weakened immune system, is elderly, or has come in contact with a sick animal in the last 5-10 days.
Some people call distemper in dogs ‘hard pad disease’ because in some cases the pads of the dog’s foot become enlarged, hard, or thick.
The incubation period for distemper is about a week and replicates in the lymph system, helping it spread easily and infect pets who have weak immune systems to begin with, making it a serious disease that moves fast and can result in death 2-5 weeks after initial infection.
The likelihood of distemper being fatal depends on the severity of the dog’s symptoms, its overall health, the strain of distemper the pet is infected by, and the management of the dog’s symptoms throughout the infection.
Symptoms of distemper include:
- A high Fever, of ≥103.5 °
- Appealing tired, lethargic or depressed
- Inability to keep down food or sudden vomiting and diarrhea
- Loss of appetite
- Red Eyes with abnormal discharge (overly watery or thick mucus)
- Hardening or swelling of the pads of the feet
- In some severe cases the virus can infect the spinal fluid causing swelling, seizures, fits, or paralysis
Since puppies are particularly susceptible, it is important to get them vaccinated between 6-8 weeks of age and then follow up with your veterinarian to schedule your dogs boosters, the best way to keep your dog healthy is to prevent diseases whenever possible. If the mother of your puppy was not vaccinated the puppy is particularly susceptible.
If you have rescued your pet, purchased them from a big pet store, or recieved them from someone who has not provided the dog’s immunization records it is important to work with your veterinarian to get them up to date on their immunizations.
As always choose a vet who is well rated and who you can trust to guide you through all of your pet health decisions.
Causes of Canine Distemper
Distemper in dogs is a virus, and like all viruses it cannot replicate or procreate on its own. Iit needs a host (in this case your dog or a wild animal) to survive. When your pet is first infected the virus will infect the lymphatic system, incubating there and gaining strength until moving onto the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and (in severe cases) the nervous system.
Because the virus’s main goal is to replicate and infect your dog will have coughing and sneezing fits, accompanied by vomit and diarrhea, this is the virus's attempt to escape it’s current host and infect a new one. During this contagious time please keep your pets away from other animals and disinfect areas that could have infected fluids on them.
Treatment for Canine Distemper
While there is no known cure for Distemper in dogs there are medical treatments that will make your pet more comfortable and help your dog avoid complications due to dehydration and secondary infection while minimizing the likelihood of fits or seizures. Hospitalization may become necessary if your pet is experiencing severe dehydration or neurological symptoms, especially if your dog is a puppy, has a pre-existing health issue, or is elderly.
If your pet is experiencing a loss of appetite, cannot keep food down, or has chronic diarrhea it may become necessary for your vet to rehydrate them using an IV of fluids and nutrients to help sustain your pet and prevent severe dehydration.
If your pet appears to be suffering from a secondary infection (either in the respiratory system due to a buildup of mucus or in the digestive system due to soft tissue damage) your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics. As with any antibiotic prescription it is important to follow the medications directions and complete the entire antibiotic regimen, even if your pet appears to be feeling better.
If your pet has had seizures, fits, other neurological symptoms, or your vet feels there is risk that your pet will develop neurological symptoms due to a Distemper infection in their spinal fluid, they may prescribe potassium bromide and/or phenobarbitals to help control or lessen convulsions.
Seizures in dogs can be scary but it is important to look out for the signs and symptoms of a dog seizure: prior to seizing the dog will often look confused, stare out into space, or become unsteady. During the seizure your dog may collapse, appear to be treading water, thrash their head or limbs, chomp, chew, foam at the mouth, or lose consciousness. After a seizure your dog will likely be disoriented, try to hide, and in some cases temporarily lose their sight. If your dog has experienced a seizure, whether healthy or ill, it is important to diagnose the cause with your veterinarian.
Your dog will be contagious until all symptoms have stopped, they appear to have more energy and appetite and their eyes and mucus membranes return to normal. If the infection spread to your pets neurological symptom and it experienced seizures or fits they may continue to exhibit these symptoms for a few months after the infection has subsided. If symptoms extent past three months after infection contact your veterinarian for additional neurological testing.
Prevention of Distemper
It is important to get your pet vaccinated between 6-8 weeks of age and then follow up with your veterinarian to schedule a booster once a month until they are 20 weeks old. Between one year and 3 years old your pet should get a booster at their yearly checkup and then again every couple years for the life of your pet. T
he best way to keep your dog healthy is to prevent diseases whenever possible so make sure to work with your veterinarian to ensure your pet is vaccinated, and has a healthy diet. At home keep your pet healthy by making sure it gets plenty of exercise, does not eat people food, stays away from harmful chemicals or toxins, and avoids contact with ill pets and wildlife.
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For information on other common dog health problems, read our article 31 Most Common Dog Health Problems.
- Fetch by WebMD. Canine Distemper. Retrieved from https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/canine-distemper#1
- PetMD. Distemper in Dogs. Retrieved from https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/respiratory/c_dg_canine_distemper
- Banfield Pet Hospital. Canine Distemper: A very serious and potentially fatal disease in dogs. Retrieved from https://www.banfield.com/pet-healthcare/additional-resources/article-library/vaccinations/canine-distemper
- Fetch by WebMD. Seizures in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, & What to Do. Retrieved from https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/dog-seizure-disorders#1