HEALTH & CARE

Distemper in Dogs: Answers to Uncomfortable Questions

Distemper in Dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Just like humans, dogs can suffer from various diseases. While some are mild and can be treated at home, others are serious and can even become life threatening. In order to be able to look after your four-legged friend it is important to know as much as you can about common illnesses. If you are aware of the symptoms, you can identify a disease from an early stage, meaning that the treatment will be milder and your pet will get better sooner. Distemper in dogs is a serious problem. It is caused by a virus, CDV, and attacks the gastrointestinal, nervous and respiratory systems.

The good news regarding this terrible disease is that there are vaccines that can keep your pet safe. Unfortunately, it can strike at an early age, meaning that puppies are prone to contact it. That’s why it’s important to learn early on what vaccines dogs need.

Furthermore, there are situations when the dog can contact it even after being immunized. This is why pet owners need to be able to identify the symptoms. A significant aspect that needs to be emphasized is that this illness is highly contagious and unfortunately in most situations is incurable. This is why it is so important to know how it evolves, especially if you own more than a single dog.

The risks associated with this illness

Distemper is a life threatening illness that can spread pretty fast, especially in kennels. Unvaccinated dogs are the most exposed, while puppies are extremely vulnerable. Though not all patients die, the youngest and the oldest are prone not to recover from this virus.

Furthermore, there are cases when surviving patients remain with permanent vision and nervous system damage. The situation is even more problematic for puppies. In most cases they end up with severely mottled teeth. It is also important to understand that dogs that were not vaccinated against this disease do not develop a natural immunity against it, so this is something that needs to be checked, especially if you decide to adopt a mature dog.

Do my dog really need vaccines

Though CDV particles can be present in various environments, the good news is that they do not infect all dogs. There are indeed certain factors that trigger the spread of this powerful virus:

  • the vitality of the host – dogs with good health, that were immunized and vaccinated are less likely to get infected;
  • the virulence of CDV – meaning the quantity of viral particles; it is also important to mention that the virulence is more severe in closed spaces, rather than in the open field;
  • the environmental factors – the coolness or dryness of the weather and if the dog has to face stressful situations.

It is important to point out that distemper travels through air. This means that the dog can get infected by breathing the virus. During a period of 10 to 14 days from the infection, there are no symptoms, as the virus is latent.

However, at this point it is replicating and spreading throughout the body. As CDV enters the body through the nose, the first stop is on the lymph nodes located in the neck area. Once it secures itself there it starts to replicate and advance through the lymphatic system. In just 9 days it manages to infect the blood. As it can be seen, it is very dangerous, as there is nothing you can do to stop its spreading, considering that there are no visible symptoms until it is too late.

The death ratio is quite impressive, meaning that 50% adult dogs and 80% puppies who suffered from this illness did not manage to survive.

What are the symptoms

It is important to be able to identify the symptoms of distemper in dogs. There are different stages, and the sooner you understand what is happening to your pet, the better. Furthermore, an early treatment can mean the difference between life and death. As it was mentioned above, the first days of infections are not symptomatic. The virus spreads without causing discomfort. Once it gradually reaches the gastrointestinal and nervous systems, the dog starts to feel bad.

Though the first signs are not very alarming, you need to keep a close eye on your pet and see how things evolve. You can find out more details about the common CDV symptoms in the table below.

EARLY SYMPTOMSADVANCED SYMPTOMS
– fever;- mild eye infection;- lack of appetite.– conjunctivitis;- coughing;- breathing difficulties;

– diarrhea;

– runny nose;

– depression;

– vomiting.

The initial symptom of distemper is fever. However, the temperature is not very high and in most cases it remains unnoticed. Furthermore, it can completely disappear after several days, but reappears when the infection advances. CDV is often associated with additional bacterial infections. In almost all cases, the dog develops spinal cord and brain inflammations.

Other additional symptoms include ataxia, paralysis, muscle spasm, increased pain due to the sensitivity of sensory stimuli, deterioration of motor skills, seizures and deterioration of mental abilities. As it can be seen, the dog’s health can degenerate fast, and the situation is pretty serious when these reactions occur.

There are also other types of symptoms that do not seem serious, but can be indicators of distemper. The inflammation of the eyes is the most common. The areas that are problematic are the cornea, retina, conjunctiva and choroid. As a result, most pet owners treat is as an ordinary eye problem and simply purchase some eye drops from the veterinarian.

However, if your dog seems to have such problems, and you notice no improvements after several days of treatment you need to take it for a complete check. In most cases, this inflammation can evolve to such an extent that it can cause lesions on the retina, or can even damage the optic nerve, and this leads to blindness.

Distemper is a serious disease, and even if it spotted on time, it can cause permanent damages even if the dog recovers. Puppies are more prone to conditions that turn from acute to chronic. Enamel hypoplasia results after the virus affects the cells that build teeth enamel. As a result, the teeth of the puppies erode quickly. Another problem is hyperkeratosis. This causes the hardening of the nose and foot pads.

There are also cases, though rare, when the fetuses are infected in the utter. This generally leads either to abortion, or the puppies are born completely normally, but as the infection persists, they usually die within the first month.

Diagnosing the disease

The first step towards recovery is to diagnose distemper. There are several ways through which this illness can be identified and treated. In case you notice any of the symptoms listed above, you need to take your dog to the vet. If the veterinarian considers that there are chances that your dog may suffer from this disease, the following tests will be required: a polymerase test and skin biopsies.

Dog polymerase test

The first tests are usually made base on urine and blood samples. Once the diagnosis is established, and according to the severity, a certain treatment is prescribed. It is also important to support the pet during the whole period and to try to provide a comfortable environment to administrate the treatment.

Treatment and prevention: canine distemper vaccine

CDV is a disease that generally requires hospital stay. The treatment is only as powerful as the dog’s organism can handle. In all cases, the pet will receive nutrients and fluids that are administrated intravenously. As there is no fix cure, the drugs administrated are linked to the symptoms.

However, there are aspects that are common, and they make the difference between life and death. The environment where the sick dog rests needs to be adapted to its needs. As a result, it must be warm, completely hygienic and far from chilly drafts. It is also important to keep the nose and eyes clean all the time. In case of diarrhea and/or vomiting, additional medication is prescribed.

If the dog’s condition is relatively stable, the owner can look after it at home.

However, this implies a constant care. You need to make sure that it drinks plenty of water in order to prevent dehydration. If it shows signs that it does not see very well, glucocorticoid needs to be administrated in order to prevent blindness. If there are no visible improvements, it is mandatory to take the dog to the hospital for further treatment. In most cases, the disease progresses pretty fast, and can cause neurological damage. As a result, seizures and muscle spasms can occur, and medical control is needed in order to prevent imminent death.

Vaccination on dog

As it was mentioned above, distemper is an illness that has no specific treatment. The medicines that are prescribed have the purpose to make the symptoms bearable. However, dehydrations and seizures are prevented with the appropriate drugs in order to avoid further complications. In the end, it is a matter of how the dog’s body reacts in its fight with the virus. If it is strong enough it can defeat it, but this is not something that is 100% certain. Though few pet owners are aware of CDV, this is something that can occur, and the consequences are really serious.

A dog that is diagnosed with distemper needs to be quarantined immediately. If you have more than a dog in the house, you need to minimize exposure as much as you can. This virus is very strong and can survive for an extended period of time outside the dog’s body. As a result, the area where the ill dog stayed needs to be disinfected.

It is good to know that there are various products that can kill the virus particles. Heat, soaps, detergent and chemicals can be used to clean the room. Toys and the objects that were in direct contact with the dog can be cleaned with bleach and water. If the dog manages to survive, it is also advisable to keep it indoors for at least another month to be sure that the virus is gone.

Considering the severity of this illness, it is clear that the best treatment is prevention. In this case, there are vaccines that can keep your pet safe. The good news is that they are all results of many years of intense studies, thus they target this problem with the purpose to eliminate it.

The canine distemper vaccine is the optimum solution with minimum side effects that can mean the difference between life and death. It is vital to understand that the dog does not become immune to this illness once it becomes older. The reality is precisely the opposite. An old organism will find it more difficult to fight off the virus. This is also valid for puppies.

Vaccination schedule

There are certain rules that pet owners need to respect when it comes to vaccines, so they can be effective. Their purpose is to prevent distemper, thus they become a must in the lives of all puppies. In order to be effective, they need to be administrated for several times, at regular intervals. The first injection needs to be taken when the puppy is six weeks old. According to the type of the vaccine and the veterinarian’s recommendations, the next injections need to be taken at an interval of two or four weeks, until the puppy is 14 to 16 weeks old.

Just like in the case of all vaccines that are available for dogs, but also humans, the puppy is completely protected only after the last injection was administrated.

It is also important to mention that this vaccine needs to be repeated a year after the last injection was taken. Furthermore, the veterinarian will establish a vaccination schedule in order to keep your dog protected the entire time. The intervals are established based on the risk factors, but also based on the pet’s history. It is also important to mention that puppies need to be protected until they receive all the vaccinations. As a result, it is forbidden to expose them to unknown dogs, thus dog parks should be avoided.

Living and management

A dog that displays the symptoms of distemper needs to be isolated from the rest of the pack, but also from foreign dogs. If only one of the dogs shows the signs of this illness and the others did not contact it, but they are not vaccinated, it is mandatory to do it immediately.

Furthermore, as it was mentioned above, a full disinfection of the house and the surrounding areas where the dog was held is required. Typical household products are usually sufficient. However, if you feel that the area is not clean, you can always ask the veterinarian for professional advice. It is also important to understand that this is a serious disease, and not all dogs manage to survive. In order to be able to provide the adequate treatment it is mandatory to keep a close eye on your pet and watch out for the symptoms. In this case, it is essential to see how the disease evolves.

Dog with distemper

The acute stage is the most serious one. This is when the dog is prone to pneumonia and dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea. If the virus reaches the nervous system, the pet can start to behave awkward, due to neural disturbance. Seizures are also common, so it is mandatory to be ready to provide first aid maneuvers. The recovery of the pet depends on three factors: the strain of the virus, the response of the immune system and its strength, and the care you provide. This is the time the dog needs all the care and attention in order to overcome this difficult situation.

It is also important to point out that the dog can suffer from seizures even after two months post recovery. Once it is fully recovered, the dog does not carry the virus anymore, thus it cannot spread it.

In conclusion

Distemper is a serious illness that can threaten the life of all dogs, no matter the age. As it is caused by a virus, it can be transmitted with ease. The symptoms and evolution are severe, and unfortunately there is no treatment available. This is why it is extremely important to diagnose it at an early stage in order to prevent it from spreading. The evolution depends on the dog’s immune system and how well it responds to treatment.

As the medicines can only relieve the symptoms, there is not much that can be done, but to protect the organs that are threatened to be infected. Knowing all these details about distemper, pet owners can save the life of their pet from an early age. The vaccine is the only viable solution that can keep your four-legged friend away from this powerful virus.

Furthermore, it is always best to prevent rather than cure. Considering all the information presented above, pet owners need to think about which variant is appropriate for their pet. The good news is that vaccines can be made no matter the age, so all dogs can be kept safe, whether they are adopted or bought.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • GraceTerrence

    Can puppies fully recover from distemper without any lasting medical issues? My friend plans to adopt a puppy was taken off from medications following a bout of the disease. Will this cause a problem in the future like seizures or cancer?

    • Puppies can completely recover from distemper. Your friend’s concern should be on the lineage of the puppy other than a recent distemper episode. Seizures and cancer are more of a genetic and breed-inclined incidences that are worth considering especially if your friend plans to adopt a puppy.

      • rjay

        if a puppy recovered from distemper, can we still bring the dog to the vet for distemper vaccine? just to make sure the virus wont come back. thanks

  • John

    I regularly take my dog to the vet for vaccinations, but just don’t seem to fully feel justified. My dog never gets into contact with any other dogs, he is always at home. Is he still vulnerable to distemper? Is it still vital that I take him for vaccinations?

    • Wyatt Robinson

      As a pet parent, we should always go with the preventive aspect. I would really recommend getting your dog vaccinated because you’ll never know when a distemper outbreak can hit your community.

  • Wyatt Robinson

    Sadly, rjay, canine distemper can recur. It would be better to have your dog evaluated if it is still fit for vaccination as some survivors tend to be hit so hard they are no longer advised to get the vaccine considering the very low chance of complications.

  • StreetHawk

    One of my dogs had distemper and I had to put her down four days ago. Now my concern is my other rescue Tommy, I picked him up in March. He has had one distemper shot as far as I know in april. The dogs were in close contact till I noticed the signs 7 days ago and isolated her. Right now, tommy’s hyper but suddenly gets lethargic and keeps away. He still has a voracious appetite. He always throws up a little every few days if he eats too fast, so I can’t tell with that symptom. But his nose is dry on top and runny below. He had a muscle spasm in his right leg few days ago but that seems to have gone away. The vet said to ignore the spasm. Am I just panicking or is there cause for worry?

    • Wyatt Robinson

      I believe you should not worry much as long as your veterinarian knows what’s going on. Nasal discharge can also be due to weather shifts. Let me know if the spasm progresses or if there were any changes in appetite and behaviour.

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