There are few canine diseases more dangerous than distemper. The illness, caused by a virus related to the measles, attacks dogs throughout their body, leading to widespread infection.
Once the virus spreads, it gets more and more difficult to treat. It is highly contagious and left untreated or caught too late, can lead to death.
Thankfully, distemper is preventable. The easiest form of prevention is inoculation. The distemper vaccine is a core vaccination for dogs. Other core vaccinations include parvovirus, canine adenovirus, and rabies.
If you have not vaccinated your dog, it is important to know the symptoms of distemper and to understand what to do if you believe your dog has fallen victim to this illness.
Distemper Symptoms in Dogs
As distemper infects a dog’s body, different symptoms will emerge. The virus typically attacks in two stages, starting with the respiratory tract before moving to the digestive system, the urogenital epithelium, the central nervous system, and the eyes.
The virus can move quickly, replicating and spreading throughout the body. Often, the first visual clue to suggest your dog has distemper is a pus-like discharge from his eyes, though that certainly does not mean your dog has distemper.
Discharge from the eyes can be a symptom of many other health issues including conjunctivitis.
Your dog also may suffer from allergies, dry eye or simply have something in his eye he cannot get out on his own. This is why it is important to have a vet examine your pet to determine what is causing the discharge.
Following the eye discharge, fever soon follows, usually three days to a week after infection. Your dog may also lose his appetite and suffer from a runny nose during this early stage of the disease.
Other early symptoms include:
- Pustular dermatitis (rarely)
- Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
As the disease progresses, it can affect a dog’s paw pads and nose. Distemper subjects the paws to hyperkeratosis, a hardening of the flesh that makes up the pads. Pads not only harden, they also enlarge and can cause pain and discomfort.
When distemper reaches the immune system, other infections can take hold.
Bacterial infections can dig into the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, causing a number of other symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulty, shallow or rapid breathing and, in some cases, pneumonia. As the virus worsens, it can affect the central nervous system, causing a spectrum of neurological symptoms. The symptoms are so unusual for most canines, owners are shocked. Symptoms include:
- Head tilt
- Pacing in circles
- Partial or full paralysis
- Repetitive eye movements
- Muscle twitching
- Increased salivation
If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to contact your dog’s vet as soon as possible. Untreated distemper usually leads to death. Dogs that survive through the disease often have permanent damage to their bodies.
How Is Distemper Diagnosed?
There are a few steps your dog’s vet will take to make a positive distemper diagnosis. The difficulty in diagnosing the disease, however, is that the symptoms mimic many other ailments.
The vet likely will rule out a number of illnesses, such as bacterial pneumonia, gastroenteritis, and epilepsy, each of which presents symptoms such as trouble breathing, digestive issues, and seizures, before concluding your dog has distemper.
The vet will start with your dog’s vaccination history. If he is up-to-date on his inoculations, the vet can rule out distemper easily. If your dog is not up-to-date, that will let the vet know distemper is a possibility. There are also a number of lab tests your vet may run to try to isolate the illness.
While your vet may take a blood sample during diagnosis, it may not help him much. It could reveal lymphopenia, though, which affects the immune system and can be an early indicator of distemper. If your dog has leukocytosis, an increase in white blood cells, that may show up on the blood test as well. Leukocytosis could indicate your dog is farther along in the disease.
If the vet fears your dog might have pneumonia, he could order X-rays or another imaging test to get a better look at his lungs. A microscopic inspection of buffy coat cells could reveal inclusion bodies, which are unique cell structures and are markers for the disease. Those inclusion bodies are also found in conjunctival secretions.
While the vet is looking for inclusions in those buffy coat cells, he may also order an immunofluorescent assay, which would reveal viral antigens. Vets would consider those a piece of the larger distemper puzzle.
How Is Distemper Treated?
Once a dog contracts distemper, he must work through the disease on his own. There is no simple cure. Vets and pet owners can give supportive care.
This method treats various symptoms as those symptoms arise. Vets may also try to provide some preventative care, helping reduce or eliminate any new infections that could occur.
Typical supportive care includes antibiotics to combat infection and respiratory complications such as pneumonia. Intravenous fluids help keep the infected dog hydrated and anti-seizure medications and steroids help tackle seizures.
Vets typically administer steroids only when seizures do not react to the regular medication.
How Are Dogs Affected Long-Term?
There can be long-term complications for dogs who survive a distemper infection. Often those long-term effects show up years after the dog recovers.
Most complications are a result of central nervous system infections. Dogs may be addled with seizures or suffer from permanent brain damage.
How Do You Prevent Distemper?
The best way to prevent distemper is to vaccinate your dog. Puppies often receive their first distemper shot at six to eight weeks old. It takes nearly a month for the vaccination to take effect. For adult dogs getting the vaccination, many will be protected after two weeks.
Boosters and inoculations for other canine diseases, such as parvo, will occur over the next few weeks until the puppy is four or five months old. During this time, it is best to keep your pet away from other pets who could be infected or who could be exposed to infected dogs. Keeping your pet’s kennel clean will also help prevent your dog from distemper exposure.
Dogs become infected by other dogs, usually from contact with urine, blood or saliva. Distemper can also pass between dogs via shared food and water bowls, so take extra precaution if other dogs drink from your pet’s water bowl or when your dog visits another dog’s home.
Remember, too, that dogs shed the virus for weeks after recovery. If you know a dog has had distemper, make sure to keep your dog away for at least a month before visiting.
Though it can’t prevent acquiring distemper, making sure to best understand the medical history of a rescue dog can prevent battling the disease after adoption. Distemper is most prevalent in shelters, though certainly not common.
Knowing whether the pet you are adopting has had the proper vaccinations is necessary, either to ensure the dog is safe from distemper or to plan to have the dog vaccinated soon after adoption. Insist on obtaining the same information from any pet store or breeder, if you choose to purchase a dog.
When Should I Take My Dog to the Vet?
If you suspect your dog has distemper, see the vet immediately. While distemper symptoms may be similar to those of a dozen different illnesses, there is no harm in visiting the doc for a diagnosis. The worst that could happen is learning your dog has a simple, easily treated illness. Waiting could be fatal for your dog.
Distemper spreads quickly. Catching the virus early can prevent that spread and help improve survival chances. While supportive care is still the standard, advancements in medicine make it much easier for vets to help dogs survive distemper.
What Dogs Are Prone To Get Distemper?
While all breeds are susceptible to the disease, puppies and younger dogs are most likely to be stricken with distemper, especially rescues and dogs purchased from pet stores. The cause is usually lack of vaccination.
Dogs born to unvaccinated mothers are most vulnerable. By some estimates, more than 30 percent of dogs entering shelters are not vaccinated against the disease, and more than 80 percent of puppies are not vaccinated.
Other Canine Diseases To Watch Out For
While distemper symptoms mimic symptoms of more benign canine illnesses, a few deadly diseases present similarly. It is good to be aware of these diseases as well.
Signs of parvo, another highly contagious dog disease, include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and weight loss. Parvo spreads quickly in a dog’s body and is often fatal. Similar to distemper, prevention via vaccination is the best way to combat the disease.
Fever, dehydration, and vomiting are also signs of leptospirosis, along with muscle tenderness and lethargy. It can be a painful illness, but you can prevent it through vaccination. Respiratory distress can be a sign of heartworm, a well-known canine illness.
Heartworms are parasitic, foot-long worms that live in a dog’s heart and damage the cardiovascular system. You should be able to keep your dog safe from heartworm with regular vet visits and a regimen of pills or shots.