Canine distemper is a very serious, contagious virus found in dogs that attacks the immune system, making them more susceptible to other infections, including bacterial and parasitic infections. Sneezing, coughing, pneumonia, anorexia, fever, vomiting and diarrhea are all potential signs of this disease. These signs can be difficult to distinguish from “kennel cough,” a common upper respiratory infection that normally heals quickly without treatment, and parvovirus, a debilitating disease that causes profuse vomiting and diarrhea. Canine distemper, however, can also have neurologic signs, including forceful muscle twitching, seizures, blindness, “chewing gum” fits, incoordination, hypersensitivity, circling and abnormal vocalization. These neurologic signs may be seen in conjunction with other symptoms, and may even be seen weeks or months after apparent recovery! Often these neurologic signs are irreversible, but some may be managed with medication, if they aren’t too severe. The mortality rate of this disease is approximately 50 percent.
How do dogs get canine distemper?
The virus is spread directly from dog to dog, mostly in respiratory fluids (oral and nasal discharge exuded during sneezing and coughing), but it can also be found in other body secretions, including urine. The virus can be shed for 60-90 days after infection; however, shorter shedding periods (1-2 weeks) are more common. Fortunately, this is not a hardy virus and is killed by normal disinfecting methods. It doesn’t last long in warm environments and only lasts for a couple of weeks in near-freezing temperatures (although it can last for years in below-freezing temperatures). The most susceptible dogs to canine distemper are unvaccinated young dogs, although unvaccinated older dogs can also develop neurologic signs. A presumptive diagnosis of canine distemper is often made on clinical signs, but specific diagnosis often requires an outside lab.
Prevention is key
There is no cure for canine distemper. Intensive supportive treatment might be necessary for dogs who contract the disease, but the neurologic signs may be too severe to treat. Dogs that recover from this disease may have lasting neurologic deficits, but recovered dogs do not continue to shed the disease to other dogs.
Vaccination and isolation of symptomatic dogs are key to preventing this disease. Immunity can be long-term, but it is not necessarily lifelong, so periodic vaccinations — even in older dogs — are required. Please contact your primary care veterinarian for their recommended vaccination protocol, and keep your pet healthy!
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