Understanding Canine Distemper: Is Your Pet at Risk?


Keeping your pet happy and healthy includes veterinary care and vaccines to prevent the onset of serious disease. Here’s why it is important to talk to your veterinarian about protection for canine distemper:

What is distemper?

Distemper is a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease affecting the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and nervous systems—caused by the Morbillivirus, which is related to the human measles virus.

How is distemper contracted in dogs?

The disease is spread through the air, usually in respiratory secretions of an infected animal, such as a cough or sneeze; however, contact with infected feces, blood, urine, or the fleas of a diseased animal also pose risks of transmittal. The virus can survive on surfaces, so care must be taken to sterilize pet blankets, food and water bowls, and all other items that have been in contact with an infected animal.

Who is at risk?

The disease attacks unvaccinated pets, with young puppies, adolescent pups, and older dogs being most vulnerable. Puppies born to unvaccinated mothers are at high risk, especially in the first six weeks of life. Adolescent pups may not have had all their vaccines, and senior pets with medical conditions may not have received boosters.

Wildlife, including foxes, wolves, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, weasels, badgers, wolverines, ferrets, and otters can all be infected and carry the disease.

What are the symptoms?

Varying symptoms develop as the disease attacks various organ systems. Respiratory symptoms manifest in diseased lungs, vomiting and diarrhea can indicate gastrointestinal attacks, brain and nervous system afflictions can display in seizures and behavioural disturbances.

Your pet may display some or all of the following signs:

  • High fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Persistent cough
  • Sneezing
  • Lethargy
  • Nasal discharge
  • Mucous-filled, red, or watery eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Vision loss
  • Calluses on foot pads
  • Seizures
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Paralysis
  • Hysteria

How is the disease diagnosed?

  • Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam to detect any outward symptoms of the disease, such as a high fever; however, clinical signs can take ten to fourteen days to manifest
  • Blood tests can examine white blood cell count and provide insights into immune function and check for depletion of lymphocytes
  • Radiographs, or X-rays, can test for pneumonia or other respiratory infections
  • Computed tomography, CT, and magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, scans can be performed to examine the brain in patients displaying neurological symptoms

Can the disease be prevented?

Vaccines are the best way to protect your pet from canine distemper. Talk to your veterinarian about the schedule for your dog, and keep up-to-date records of all vaccines. Your new puppy should first be vaccinated at six to eight weeks of age. A series of three vaccines is required for puppies in the first year. NEVER take an unvaccinated animal to the dog park, boarding facility, or anywhere he/she may be exposed to carriers of the disease.

What you can do?

See a veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has contracted canine distemper. Because the disease is aggressive and develops rapidly, intervention as soon as possible is needed. Inform your veterinarian of all symptoms you have observed, including the frequency of vomiting and diarrhea.

Can distemper be treated in dogs?

Canine distemper cannot be treated, but your veterinarian can target symptoms of the illness and perform intervention to save your pet’s life. Your pet may need intravenous fluids for dehydration, medication for vomiting and diarrhea, and antibiotics for secondary infections. Seizing pets may be treated with anticonvulsants.

What is the prognosis?

Outcomes will depend on the stage of progression of the disease and the strength of your pet’s immune system. In serious cases, outcomes can be fatal. Sadly, puppies and senior dogs are often too weak to fight later stages of the disease. Unfortunately, many dogs that have been treated successfully may develop neurological symptoms, such as seizures, in later years, or have permanent brain or nerve damage.

Canine distemper is a serious disease that can be life threatening. It is important to talk to your veterinarian about vaccines for your pet to keep him/her healthy and safe.




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