Distemper in Dogs

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Distemper in Dogs

Have you ever heard someone say their dog is going to the vet for their “Distemper” shot? Have you ever wondered what is wrong with their temper? Sadly, even the nicest dogs can get Distemper! It is an old name describing the disease that somehow stuck and is now part of our medical dictionary.

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Distemper is a worldwide, highly contagious virus that exists in our domestic pet dogs (as well as ferrets, raccoons, and skunks). It can be fatal in dogs or cause severe, permanent neurologic disease. The virus attacks multiple systems in dogs’ bodies and is not easy to treat. Distemper can affect the central nervous system, the respiratory system, and the gastrointestinal system.

Causes of Distemper

Dogs can become infected with the Distemper virus:

  1. Through direct contact with an infected animal or object
  2. Through airborne exposure
  3. Through the placenta while in the womb

Clinical Signs of Distemper in Dogs

Although many diseases can cause some of these signs, it is rare to see them all together, and makes the diagnosis of Distemper highly likely.

  • Fever
  • Clear nose discharge
  • Thick, yellow eye discharge
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia or decreased appetite
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Neurological signs such as head tilt, circling, tremors, muscle twitching, seizures, ataxia (drunken walk) due to inflammation of the spinal cord, and nystagmus (rapid and repetitive eyeball movements)
  • Rare: pustular dermatitis
  • Death

Diagnosis of Distemper in Dogs

Clinical signs lead to a vet suspecting the disease, tests confirm the diagnosis. There are several types of tests, using blood, urine, swabs from the conjunctiva of the eye, and more. The Distemper virus is challenging to isolate, so multiple and repeat testing is often performed to ensure the dog is no longer contagious before being released from isolation.

Treatment for Dogs with Distemper

Most viruses have no specific treatment other than supportive care and time. Each clinical sign can be treated, but the virus itself cannot be eliminated. Anti-diarrheal, anti-nausea, and anti-seizure medications, intravenous (IV) fluids to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance, antibiotics for respiratory infections, and close monitoring while in hospital isolation are just some of the treatments often given to Distemper patients. They must remain in isolation during the entire time they are treated until they have tested negative twice in a row.

Prevention of Distemper

Prevention is much easier than treatment! The “Distemper” vaccine, as it’s commonly known, is actually a combination vaccine that covers Distemper, Adenovirus, Parvovirus, and Parainfluenza virus (often abbreviated DAPP). This vaccine is ideally administered at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age in puppies. Puppies should not be exposed to other dogs until they are fully vaccinated and should remain on their home property to limit exposure to Distemper in the environment, in other dogs, or wildlife.

When to Contact a Vet

Puppies under 4 months old and unvaccinated puppies are the most likely to become infected with Distemper. If you see any of the above listed clinical signs and you’re concerned that your dog may have Distemper, call your vet immediately. If your dog has been exposed to a wild raccoon or skunk that does not seem to be acting right, call your vet immediately.

Read more:

What You Need to Know About Vaccinating Your Dog

Parvovirus in Puppies: A Treatment and Prevention Q&A

Vomiting and Diarrhea in Dogs

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