Canine Distemper: A Serious Disease

By: Lori Teller, DVM, DABVP, CVJ

TVMA Member
Houston, TX

Published December 2014

What is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a very serious and highly contagious disease caused by a virus that is related to the measles virus in humans. While dogs are the primary hosts for this nasty virus, other animals, such as raccoons, skunks, ferrets, foxes, wolves and coyotes, are also susceptible. Distemper is most common in young puppies or unvaccinated dogs of any age. The virus is usually spread through airborne exposure to respiratoryOf or relating to the organs of breathing. secretionsA substance discharged by secretion., such as those expelledForce out or eject. when an infected dog sneezes or coughs. Clusters of distemper outbreaks may occur where susceptible dogs congregate, such as in shelters or in kennel facilities where immunizations are not required.

What are the Signs of Distemper in Dogs?

Clinical signs may vary among patients, depending on the strength of the virus and the ability of the dog’s immune system to fight the infection. Common observable signs include discharge from the eyes that appears watery or like greenish mucus, sneezing and nasal discharge, coughing, fever, lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting and/or diarrhea. As the disease progresses, the distemper virus invades the neurologic system and may cause twitching, “chewing gum” or “fly-biting” fits or full-blown convulsions. Neurologic effects can occur from as soon as a few days after the respiratoryOf or relating to the organs of breathing. and gastrointestinalOf or relating to the stomach and the intestines. signs appear to many years later if the dog is lucky enough to survive the initial disease. Dogs who do make it to old age may also develop hard pad disease, a problem where the footpads become extremely thickened and firm.

How Does a Veterinarian Diagnose Distemper?

Distemper can be diagnosed based on history, physical exam, clinical signs and the results of laboratory testing. To confirm a suspected case of distemper, your veterinarian may obtain a blood or urine sample or a swab from your dog’s mucous membranes and send it to the lab to check for the presence of the distemper virus in his tissues. Your veterinarian may also take radiographs (X-rays) of your dog’s chest to look for the presence of pneumonia, a common problem in dogs with distemper.

Can Distemper be Cured?

There is no cure for distemper, so supportive care is provided to allow the dog’s immune system a chance to fight off the infection. Supportive care may include IV fluids to combat dehydration, antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia, medications to control vomiting and diarrhea, nutritional support and anticonvulsants to control partial or complete seizures. The prognosisThe likely course of a disease or ailment. for recovery from distemper is guarded, and if neurologic symptoms develop, the prognosis becomes poor. MortalityDeath can be high with this disease.

How Can Distemper be Prevented?

The most important thing you can do for your dog regarding distemper is to prevent it in the first place by making sure he or she is fully vaccinated against it. Current guidelines recommend that all puppies initially be vaccinated at 6-8 weeks of age and then every 3-4 weeks until they are 16 weeks old. They should then receive a booster one year after completing their pediatric series of immunizations and every three years thereafter. Adult dogs with an unknown vaccination history should receive two immunizations 3-4 weeks apart and then receive booster immunizations as above. Infected dogs should be isolated from other dogs.

Dogs with distemper may continue to shed the virus in their respiratory secretions for 1-2 weeks after the initial signs of acute illness appear. Dogs with neurologic symptoms may shed the virus for even longer.

Moving Forward: Aftereffects of Distemper

If you do lose a puppy to distemper, please speak with your veterinarian about precautions to take before bringing another puppy into your home. It is possible to spread the disease through materials such as clothing, shoes, food/water bowls and surfaces that came in contact with vomit/diarrhea. The distemper virus is extremely hardy and unfortunately can be a danger to new pets, even once the infected dog is no longer in the home. We want to make sure that future dogs are protected from this horrible disease.

Lori Teller, DVM is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Houston, Texas. She practices at Meyerland Animal Clinic.