Canine Distemper

Many people have heard of the canine distemper virus, whether through personal experience or hearing it on the news.  It is a particularly nasty virus that can have devastating consequences for survivors and even be fatal.  Luckily, it is not common nowadays because of vaccination- however this has led to the lack of information about the disease, even amongst veterinarian professionals.  Some practitioners may never see a true case of canine distemper.  This lack of experience can often lead to misdiagnosis of a sick animal with potentially severe consequences.

Distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus.  It affects dogs as well as other mammals including raccoons and ferrets.  Susceptible animals can be any un-vaccinated dog, but usually affects younger dogs.   I should also note that canine distemper and feline distemper are completely different.

The virus is shed in bodily fluids and secretions (i.e. feces, urine, nasal discharge etc) and infection can be from direct contact with an infected animal or contact with “fomites” which refers to contaminated objects or people.

Exposure to the virus generally results in infection after 1-2 weeks, but can take up to 4-5 weeks.  Early symptoms after infection can be as vagues as lethargy and fever, but if these symptoms are mild, they can be easily missed.

Clinical signs of disease are very similar to signs of “kennel cough”-nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, fever and anorexia.  Distemper infections differ in the fact that they are much more severe.  Kennel cough infections are generally somewhat mild and self limiting and respond well to treatment.  The distemper virus can affect other systems as well, such as the GI tract, the nervous system, the immune system, and even the eyes.  Other clinical signs can include diarrhea, inflammation within the eyes, KCS (dry eye), blindness and even neurological signs such as seizures.  The virus can cause immunosuppression, which makes the animal very susceptible to secondary infections.  Pneumonia is one common as a secondary illness.  Neurological signs can develop at the same time as other clinical signs or even months after infection.

Diagnosis can be difficult but should be based on clinical and diagnostic testing.  Sometimes diagnosis cannot be made until after death.  Testing is available for tissue or fluid samples, but false negatives can be common.  Microscopic examination of tissue samples obtained on necropsy is considered the best way. 

Treatment of distemper infections can be long and stressful.  Hospitalization is generally required in the beginning.  Antibiotics are used to help treat secondary bacterial infections; supportive care (i.e. IV fluids, maintaining proper nutrition and rest) is also necessary.  Recovery is possible but lengthly.  Survivors may be more susceptible to respiratory infections due to damage of the respiratory tract from the virus.  Animals may also experience neurological damage which could be permanent depending on the severity of the illness.

Vaccination is very effective in preventing the disease and dog owners need to be educated by their veterinarians to ensure new canine family members are properly protected.

As always if you have any concerns about your pets health, don’t be afraid to talk to your veterinarian and ask questions to make sure you understand what is happening with your pet.

Written by Dr. Cynthia Moon
Veterinarian at Wayside Waifs


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