Distemper in Dogs

Canine Distemper - What Dog Owners Need to Know

Canine Distemper - What Dog Owners Need to Know

If you’re like a lot of dog owners, you’re used to a certain set of vaccines. When they’re due, they’re due, and you (along with your veterinary team) consider them part of a standard preventive care routine.

Of course, the rabies vaccine is the most familiar of those “core” vaccines, or vaccines that are most often part of every healthy pet’s wellnes care plan. You’re probably familiar with the Canine Distemper vaccine, too, but what disease does this vaccine help prevent? What happens if your dog actually contracts that potentially fatal disease? We’ve got answers to your FAQs:

What is Canine Distemper?

Distemper “is a contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs,” as the American Veterinary Medical Association explains. Other animals, such as foxes, raccoons, and skunks can be affected as well.

How could my Dog get Distemper?

If your dog comes into contact with an infected animal, your dog is at risk. This includes airborne transmission, such as through coughing or sneezing. But shared toys and dishes can put your dog at risk, too because “Discharge from the nose is heavily laden with the virus.” (Source)

Even toys can be a route to spread distemper in dogs

How do I know if my Dog is Infected?

Signs of distemper in dogs can vary, and they can mirror symptoms of other diseases as well. The respiratory symptoms tend to crop up first. AVMA describes that “Initially, infected dogs will develop watery to pus-like discharge from their eyes. They then develop fever, nasal discharge, coughing, [and] lethargy.”

Stomach issues are typical as well, including vomiting and anorexia (reduced appetite). Then, as mentioned above, with progression the nervous system is affected, 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, this combination is unique to canine distemper.” So the diagnosis can potentially be easily apparent, but lab tests may be called for as well.

How is this Disease Treated?

Distemper is a virus, meaning there is no medication that will “kill” or “cure” it. However, there is high risk for secondary infection, so antibiotics may be used for that reason. You might think of it like a severe case of the flu in humans: supportive care can include “Intravenous fluids, cough suppressants and drugs to control seizures.” (Source) For distemper cases, hospitalization is generally necessary to get the full range of nursing care and to reduce the risk of infection to other animals.

Distemper is a serious, potentially fatal, illness in dogs

Furthermore, distemper can be fatal, so it is a disease that we take very seriously. Dogs can recover, but it is important to note that there may be lasting effects, such chronic neurological issues or persistent seizures.

How do I keep my Dog Safe from Distemper?

Because this disease can be fatal, prevention of infection in the first place is key. Distemper vaccination should be part of the standard puppy series of immunizations and boosters. 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!