Canine Distemper

Applicable For:
  • Dogs

Canine distemper (called canine distemper virus, or CDV) is a viral disease of the paramyxovirus family. It is similar to the measles virus and can spread among different species. All populations of domestic dogs are vulnerable to the virus. Distemper may be responsible for the near-extinction of the black-footed ferret and the complete extinction of the Tasmanian tiger. There is a vaccine which was developed in 1950 but it is only used in some locations.

Puppies between the ages of three and six months are especially vulnerable and suffer from the highest mortality rate due to complications like encephalitis and pneumonia. CDV spreads through the air via droplets and through bodily fluids and contaminated food and water. A dog is contagious on days 6 through 22 after exposure to the virus. The disease manifests between 14 and 18 days after infection. Some dogs develop a fever between day three and six.

Distemper affects the nervous, epithelial, and lymphoid tissues. It starts out in the respiratory tract and spreads through the blood stream throughout the body. Mortality rate depends upon the overall immune health of the infected dog.

Testing and Detection
Early symptoms may be loss of appetite, eye discharge, and runny nose. A fever usually appears around day 11 or 12 and lasts a week. Respiratory and gastrointestinal problems are common, as is encephalomyelitis and thickened foot pads. Secondary bacterial infections of the respiratory tract and gastrointestinal system are likely. Symptoms of gastrointestinal involvement include vomiting and diarrhea. Respiratory symptoms include runny nose, coughing and labored breathing, and excessive salivation. Neurological symptoms include incontinence, muscle twitching, seizures, “chewing gum fits.” Some animals may become sensitive to light, loss of motor coordination, and increased sensitivity to stimuli. As the disease progresses, the seizures become worse and death eventually results.

Diagnosis (in un-vaccinated dogs) is usually based upon the combination of fever, neurological signs, respiratory signs, and thickened footpads in dog. Diagnostic testing should be done if CDV is suspected, however, because several illnesses share symptoms, such as leptospirosis, parainfluenza, canine hepatitis, and herpes virus. Testing of the cells of the lining of the bladder is one of the most reliable tests to diagnose canine distemper virus definitively.

Most treatment for distemper cases was merely palliative – to make the dog comfortable as the disease progressed to death. There have been some treatments that involve ribavirin and vitamin A (similar to the treatment for measles). A study, which involved giving high levels of vitamin A to infected animals resulted in a 100% recovery rate.

It should be noted that canine distemper virus can be prevented by vaccination. The proper approved vaccine should be used for the animal, since giving an unapproved vaccine may result in the animal contracting the virus. Infected animals should be quarantined in order to prevent transmission. Use proper disinfectant on all hard surfaces and wash all bedding with a bleach solution, followed by a high-heat dryer cycle, to kill the virus.