Treating distemper

Most people have heard of distemper in dogs, but few know exactly what it is. Distemper is a viral disease, which affects the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and central nervous systems in dogs. The canine distemper virus (CDV) causes the disease. It is highly contagious, and is often fatal.

While canine distemper is found around the world, vaccinations have greatly reduced the number of deaths attributed to it. Puppies between the ages of three and six months are the most susceptible to the disease, and are more likely to die than an infected adult dog.

The typical distemper sufferer is a dog who has not received the proper vaccinations. These are usually rescue dogs, or dogs from a pet shop.

The CDV virus can be transmitted through the urine and feces of infected dogs, but the primary method of transmission is through airborne viral particles breathed in by the dog. Dogs in the recovery phase of the disease may continue to shed the virus for several weeks, although once they are fully cured, the danger of infecting others is past. The CDV virus is susceptible to most disinfectants, so routine cleaning of the living quarters of infected dogs will minimize the spread of the disease.

Humans can contract an asymptomatic CDV infection, but if they have been immunized against measles, they are protected from CDV as well.

The earliest symptom of the disease is a fever, followed closely by a runny nose, loss of appetite, and a mild eye discharge. Then, depending on the strain of the infecting virus and the dog’s overall health, the dog could also experience:

  • Diarrhea
  • Continued fever
  • Pneumonia (Characterized by labored breathing and coughing)
  • Depletion of white blood cells
  • Vomiting
  • Hardening of the pads of the feet
  • Unusual tooth enamel

Secondary bacterial infections often exacerbate these symptoms. Dogs usually develop an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, the symptoms of which are varied and progressive.

Dogs can die from distemper; those that do are usually felled by neurological complications, such as the following:

  • depression
  • Ataxia, an inability to coordinate the muscles
  • Hyperesthesia, a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, like touch and pain
  • Myoclonus, disabling muscle spasms
  • Paralysis, partial or complete
  • Deterioration of mental abilities and motor skills
  • Seizures affecting any part of the body. One memorable type of head seizure that is unique to distemper is sometimes called “the chewing gum fit” because the dog appears to be chewing gum.

Diagnosing distemper infection

It is very difficult to diagnose distemper. Tests for distemper sometimes return a false positive result, and there are many diseases with similar symptoms. A test of the dog’s cerebral spinal fluid will provide a definitive diagnosis, but this test is expensive and can be dangerous for your dog. Most veterinarians rely on a clinical diagnosis: they check for symptoms, perform routine tests, and rule out other diseases by taking a complete history of the dog, including his vaccination schedule, etc.

Treating distemper

Unfortunately, there is no specific drug that will cure distemper. The best treatment option at this time is to give supportive care for the different symptoms and to help prevent new infections occurring while the white blood cells are suppressed. A few examples of supportive treatment follow:

  • Antibiotics to help prevent pneumonia
  • IV fluids to replace fluids lost due to diarrhea and vomiting
  • Anti-seizure medication
  • Steroids (used only with severe seizures that cannot be controlled with regular medication)

Preventing infection

Preventing distemper infection is as easy as taking your dog to the veterinarian for a shot. The “distemper shot” is generally combined with vaccines for canine parvovirus, parainfluenza, adenovirus 2, leptospirosis, and sometimes coronavirus. Puppies receive a series of shots, beginning when they are six to eight weeks old, and then every four weeks until they are 16 weeks old.

The next vaccine should be administered one year later, with boosters every one to three years after that. Some veterinarians will automatically vaccinate on a regular schedule; others will perform tests to ascertain the antibody levels in your dog and decide whether to administer a booster based on the results. More and more veterinarians are turning to blood tests to make the vaccination decision, as research is showing that too many vaccinations can actually do our dogs more harm than good.

Types of vaccinations

Distemper vaccines are available in both the traditional modified live virus format, where actual distemper virus is modified to induce immune-response without causing illness, and the recombinant format, where a live harmless virus, not a form of the distemper virus, is used to carry the immune-response generator portion of the distemper virus. The recombinant format is generally preferred since it is impossible for distemper or distemper encephalitis to occur as the result of vaccination. While these complications are rare, they are possible when using the modified live virus vaccine.

Source: Adapted from the Veterinary Information Network

  • Kristy

    Steve, this comment cut me to the core. I was ready
    to lash out with extreme force as a defense mechanism, but I do not make my
    snap judgments my final ones. I was ready to say that after that comment,
    I could not take any other comment of yours seriously, but before I could say
    that, I wanted to read your other comments.

    The truth of this statement is clouded by the tone of
    it. It surprised me how alike we are in other ways. It seems we
    have similar political leanings (I am neither Republican nor Democrat), I
    believe there are more “entitled” authority figures than there ever
    has been before. And we are both avid animal lovers.

    I just lost my 3 month old puppy to distemper. The
    wound is raw and bleeding profusely, and I don’t know at this point if I could
    own another dog. I found this thread when trying to find what I could do
    to rid my house of the virus and to see if there was a way to test if I was a
    carrier (apparently humans can carry the virus and pass it to dogs, but the
    virus does not harm humans). When I read your comment, it cut me deep
    because I had had this conversation with my husband while we were in
    emergency. We had some money set aside, but we were not expecting
    this. (In the end, the vet recommended that she be put down and not
    hospitalized because of the rapid progression and extreme likelihood that
    she would not come out of it anyway, but the fact remains that if she would
    have been likely to survive it, we couldn’t have afforded a week or more in the
    hospital.) The comment is TRUE, even if it is a terrible way to put it.

    We assumed that a puppy would be good for a while, and
    that the expensive stuff would happen later (giving us a chance to save more
    money for when it did happen). I think a lot of people would assume
    this. And I guess that makes me one of those irresponsible a-holes.
    But I also am a firm believer that dogs require love more than anything
    else. If my puppy was doomed to this fate, at least I was able to give
    her love and support through it and we had a wonderful time together on the
    good days. And dogs in shelters don’t receive the love they get from
    underfunded homes. I don’t want you to misunderstand me…I couldn’t pay
    for hospitalization, which was going to cost upwards of $10,000-$15,000, but we
    were able to pay for everything else, including office visits, multiple
    medications throughout her short life, vaccinations, and tests upon tests
    trying to diagnose. Our (apparently meager in comparison) budget was
    depleted very quickly. I thought that being a puppy, it was an
    appropriate amount to start out with, and I believe many would feel similarly. We still can’t figure out how our puppy
    caught it. The shelter said that they
    had not had a case in 7 months, and the only other place she had been was the
    vet besides our house, and she had not been introduced to other dogs yet
    because we were waiting for her vaccinations to be completed (that was supposed
    to be today, actually. The vet wanted to
    wait until all of her other medications had completed).

    This experience was heart-wrenching and I will never
    forget what I feel like right now. Maybe enough time will pass that I
    will be able to open my heart again, and I would not adopt again unless I was
    more appropriately financially prepared because of this incident. But I would not judge others in my situation
    that assumed like I did, unless they had personal or even second-hand
    experience that would tell them otherwise.

    You have obviously been through a lot, and I have a more
    well-rounded view of you than this comment provides. I hope all who read
    your comment will do the same instead of automatically label you like I wanted
    to do at first. Again, the comment is TRUE, even if the way it is stated
    is rude and judgmental.