Distemper 101

Distemper used to be the scourge of the dog world.  Every dog went through it, with some dying, some suffering brain damage and being destroyed, and some coming through it okay.  One reason trainers used to wait until a dog was eight or nine months old to start training was to see if the dog would come through distemper okay.  Because distemper is a virus, it cannot be treated effectively.  It can be prevented with a vaccine, however.

Canine distemper actually effects all dogs, wild canines such as foxes, coyotes, and wolves, raccoons, skunks, weasels, ferrets, and most other members of the weasel family.  There is an ample reservoir of the disease around us.  In addition, it is similar to human measles, although humans do not get distemper and dogs do not get measles.

To get distemper, a dog inhales the virus.  Given how often dogs sniff things, especially the droppings of other dogs and other animals, it isn’t hard to see why this spreads like wildfire through a group of dogs.  The virus settles in the tonsils and lymph nodes and replicates, then spreads throughout the body.

Dogs show coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, eye discharge, and do not eat.  They may show neurological problems, such as aggression, confusion, staggering, seizures, or other such problems.  They may become lethargic.  The footpads and nose become thickened.  The tooth enamel of young dogs can be severely damaged.  Because of the neurological problems, care should be taken to avoid being bitten.

No treatment exists.  Veterinarians can treat the symptoms and give fluids and sedate the dog to prevent seizures.  However, the dog has to fight the disease off itself.  In addition, since the disease is highly contagious, all areas the dog has been should be sterilized with bleach.  Nine parts water to one part bleach is the usual recommendation, but you should consult your veterinarian for the most current advice.

Distemper attacks dogs under 6 months of age more than older dogs.  Partly that is that young dogs cannot fight off the virus as effectively in the first place.  Partly that is because older dogs may have been exposed, or vaccinated, or even had a mild case that went undiagnosed.

Dogs should avoid places where other dogs have been until two weeks after they finish their puppy shots.  It takes approximately two weeks for dogs to develop immunity to things they are vaccinated for.  Dog parks are a huge reservoir of disease for puppies and should be avoided at least until they have had all their shots.

The mortality rate for distemper may be as high as 75%.  Another huge chunk of the dogs that get it have neurological problems for the rest of their life.  They may also suffer vision problems, as the virus attacks the vision of the dog as well as the central nervous system.  Puppies may have mottled teeth due to the disease.

Distemper is diagnosed with laboratory tests, although many veterinarians can diagnose it on sight.  A urine or blood test shows characteristic changes from the virus.  At some point, there are actually changes in the blood of the dog and “canine distemper inclusion bodies” appear.

There are excellent vaccines for distemper with minimal side effects.  Given the devastation this disease causes, every dog should be vaccinated for distemper.  It is hard to loose a dog under any circumstances, but to lose one to a preventable disease that kills in such a cruel way is inexcusable.

Puppies are given three doses of the distemper vaccination along with their other puppy shots.  Adults need a booster with their regular shots.  The frequency of those boosters is something to discuss with your veterinarian.

Distemper is a horrible disease.  Make sure your dog is protected from it.

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