Canine distemper is caused by a virus that is similar to the one that causes measles in humans.
It is a highly contagious disease and the leading cause of death in the category of infectious disease in dogs worldwide.
Dogs who are not vaccinated against the distemper virus are at high risk of infection.
The distemper virus can adversely affect a number of body organs, including the brain, the eyes, the skin, as well as the intestinal and respiratory tracts.
An infected dog can shed the distemper virus in all body secretions, such as urine.
The virus can also be spread through the air such as through coughing.
Inhalation of the virus is the main source of exposure.
Another possible way for dogs to be exposed to the virus is through contact with some wild animals such as foxes, skunks, and raccoons since these animals are affected by the distemper virus as well.
Dogs of any age can be affected by canine distemper, but young puppies less than four months old and unvaccinated puppies who are 6 to 12 weeks of age are most vulnerable.
Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs
Many dogs (about 50%) who are infected show little or no symptoms at all. Canine distemper tends to affect dogs with weakened immune systems more severely than healthy dogs.
The first signs of infection usually appear 6 to 9 days after exposure. In mild cases, these signs are usually not noticeable.
The distemper infection develops in two stages.
The first stage – the “mucosal stage” – involves the mucous membranes (eyes, respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts).
The second stage – the “neurologic phase” – involves the central nervous system.
Signs and symptoms of the first stage include:
- Fever (up to 103°F to 105°F)
- Loss of appetite
- Watery eye and Nasal discharge
A few days after the appearance of the above symptoms, the following symptoms will appear:
- A dry cough
- Thick, yellowish, and sticky eye and nasal discharge
At this point, some dogs may recover from the disease. But, weaker ones whose immune systems are not strong enough to fight off the virus will allow the disease to progress to the second stage, which occurs 2 to 3 weeks after the onset of the infection, and often involves infection of the brain (encephalitis).
Signs and symptoms include:
- Head shaking
- Weakness in limbs
- Excessive drooling
In some dogs, their footpads and nose leather may also harden.
Treatment of Distemper in Dogs
There is no medication for distemper in dogs. The only real treatment is supportive care while strengthening the dog’s immune system so that the body can fight off the disease.
Supportive care depends on the symptoms.
For example, antibiotics are used to treat pneumonia brought on by secondary bacterial infections. Intravenous fluids are used to prevent dehydration. Anticonvulsants and sedatives are used to control seizures, etc.
Distemper that has affected the brain is particularly difficult to treat.
Very often, if distemper causes encephalitis in the dog, euthanasia is unavoidable as treatment is most of the time inadequate and ineffective.
Home Care for Dogs with Distemper
Since distemper is a disease to be fought off by the body’s immunity, it is important to strengthen an infected dog’s immune system.
Vitamin C is helpful to boost the immune system and to fight infection. If your dog has a fever, give him vitamin C supplements. (Dosage: For small dogs (and puppies), give 250 mg/2 hours; for medium dogs, 500 mg/2 hours; for large dogs, 1000 mg/3 hours).
Prevention of Distemper in Dogs
Distemper in dogs can be prevented almost 100 percent by vaccination.
All puppies should receive a series of vaccination beginning at 8 weeks of age, and then every 2 to 4 weeks thereafter until age 16 weeks to ensure full protection during the first few months of their life.