Canine Distemper

What is it? A contagious virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of puppies and dogs.

What are the clinical signs? When dogs initially become infected with canine distemper virus, they display signs consistent with a common cold, such as a fever, coughing, nasal discharge, lethargy, lack of appetite, and even vomiting. As the disease progresses, the virus attacks the nervous system, causing twitching, seizures, and even paralysis. Distemper can be fatal. Sometimes, distemper is referred to as “hard pad disease” because the virus may cause the foot pads to harden.

How do dogs get Canine Distemper? Any dog can get canine distemper virus, but young, unvaccinated puppies are more at risk. Dogs usually contract the virus through airborne exposure to contaminated respiratory secretions. Dogs and/or puppies that are kept in crowded conditions, such as animal shelters, are more likely to contract the virus. Canine distemper is not zoonotic, meaning people cannot get the virus from infected dogs and/or wildlife.

How is it diagnosed? More commonly, canine distemper is diagnosed based on the dog’s age, vaccination status, and clinical signs. However, there are specific and advanced lab tests that can confirm the presence of the virus.

How can it be treated? Unfortunately, there is no cure for canine distemper virus. A single drug does not exist that kills the virus. Instead, affected dogs are treated with supportive care, to ensure the pet stays hydrated and warm. Veterinarians may also prescribe antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections. Dogs suspected of being infected with canine distemper virus are separated from others to minimize the risk of further infection.

Can it be prevented? Yes! Since there is no cure for canine distemper, prevention is key. The most important aspect of prevention is vaccination. Both puppies and adult dogs should be vaccinated against canine distemper virus. Since puppies have an immature immune system, vaccination is essential in providing disease protection. When born, a puppy is protected by antibodies in colostrum (mother’s milk). As the puppy ages, protection from mother’s milk wears off and the puppy becomes susceptible to infection and disease. To provide adequate protection during these times of susceptibility, veterinarians will vaccinate a puppy for distemper every 3-4 weeks (booster shots). Veterinarians may start vaccinating puppies as early as 6 weeks of age. The vaccine commonly used is a combination vaccine, which protects against canine distemper virus, along with parvovirus, adenovirus, and parainfluenza. Until a puppy has been fully vaccinated, owners should refrain from taking their pet to dog parks, grooming salons, doggy daycare and even obedience classes. Veterinarians recommend adult dogs receive a yearly vaccination to remain protected.

Isolation of infected animals is also important in the prevention and spread of the virus. If you suspect canine distemper virus or if your dog has been around other sick animals, please seek veterinary care immediately. When handling a sick animal, always wear gloves and thoroughly wash your hands.

Dr. Lyndi Ashley joined Town Center Animal Hospital in 2017. She completed her undergraduate studies in 2012 and received her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in May 2017 from Louisiana State University. Her professional interests include feline medicine, dermatology, and oncology.