Canine Distemper Explained

Canine distemper is a highly contagious disease that is a leading cause of canine death worldwide. The distemper virus is spread through the air or by contact with waste excreted by an infected dog or other animal. Puppies less than six-months-old usually contract distemper, although the disease can strike dogs at any age.

Characteristics of Canine Distemper

Distemper can nearly wipe out a kennel if some dogs housed there have not been vaccinated against distemper. Older dogs do not necessarily have residual immunity to distemper, contrary to popular belief; in fact, dogs most at risk of succumbing to distemper are the youngest and oldest dogs. Short of death, distemper causes serious problems throughout a dog's body, adversely affecting the eyes, brain, respiratory system and digestive system, sometimes causing permanent damage.

Symptoms of Canine Distemper

Distemper systems range from mild to life-threatening. Sometimes, antibiotics are prescribed for symptoms of infection, and they subside. However, weeks later, encephalitis (brain inflammation) in a dog infected with distemper may set in, causing severe neurological problems. Carefully record the onset and duration of the following distemper symptoms so that you may assist your vet in diagnosing the disease as early as possible.

  • Nasal discharge
  • Eye discharge
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of Appetite
  • Pneumonia
  • Tooth damage
  • Hardened nose and foot pads
  • Tics, called "chorea"
  • Walking in circles
  • Whimpering and crying
  • Seizures

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet can perform a variety of tests to confirm a diagnosis of distemper in your dog, including the following:

  • Polymerase chain reaction tests, which are performed on fluid and tissue samples
  • Skin biopsies (particularly of the foot pads)
  • Blood tests, which detect "canine distemper inclusion bodies"

Preventing Distemper

There is no complete cure for canine distemper. Therapy consists of administration of antibiotics, anticonvulsants and sedatives, as warranted. A homeopathic veterinarian may recommend nutritional and homeopathic tinctures formulated for your dog.

Fortunately, vaccines that prevent canine distemper in dogs are reducing the incidence of the disease, meaning fewer dogs are getting sick from it. Vaccinating your dog against the distemper virus is still extremely necessary, and can be a complex process, depending on your dog's age and lifestyle, so follow your vet's instructions to the letter.

Breeding females should be vaccinated against distemper two weeks before mating. And, a series of vaccinations for distemper usually begins when puppies are six weeks of age, continuing at three- to four-week intervals. If your dog has never been vaccinated against distemper, make an appointment with your vet. Finally, booster shots that protect against distemper should be renewed for the life of your dog.