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Canine distemper outbreaks have made headlines recently, including in the Toronto Star, which covered the outbreak in Toronto, Canada, that started in May 2009 and has continued to run rampant.
Find A Vet also recently reported that other areas have similarly encountered the disease, including Horry County, S.C.; Cumberland County, N.C.; and Orange County, Fla.
What is Distemper?
Many may not know that canine distemper is a close relative to the human disease called measles.
This disease doesn’t just affect dogs. Foxes, wolves, coyotes, mink, skunks, raccoons and ferrets can also become infected. In fact, raccoons are more likely than dogs to spread the disease because they are not vaccinated against distemper.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), canine distemper is an extremely contagious, serious disease “caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and often, the nervous systems of puppies and dogs.”
It’s true that all dogs are at risk for contracting distemper, but the AVMA says to pay special attention to puppies under 4 months old and dogs that have not been vaccinated against canine distemper.
How is Distemper Transmitted? What are the Symptoms?
Since distemper is highly contagious and contractible via all bodily secretions, a dog could catch it merely by sniffing or licking a contaminated surface.
“Puppies and dogs usually become infected through airborne exposure to the virus contained in respiratory secretions of an infected dog or wild animal,” writes the AVMA.
Coughing, explains the Mar Vista Animal Medical Center website, is one of the most typical ways that dogs become infected with the distemper virus.
“The virus enters the new host via the nose or mouth and promptly begins to replicate,” says Mar Vista. “Within 24 hours, the virus has traveled to the lymph nodes of the lung. By the sixth day, the virus has migrated to the spleen, stomach, small intestine and liver.”
At this point, fever develops in infected dogs. And according to the Encylopedia Britannica, this is when a dog may also become lethargic and refuse food and water.
Further symptoms according to the AVMA, Mar Vista and Britannica include:
Coughing (which can turn into pneumonia)
Discharge from the eyes (the first sign of distemper)
Vomiting and diarrhea
In its advanced stages, distemper results in these more serious symptoms described by Mar Vista and the AVMA:
Involuntary muscular twitching (chorea)
Callusing of the nose and foot pads
Although a pet can survive distemper, it’s usually fatal. If a dog does survive, he can continue to shed the virus up to two to three months after, so it’s important to take precautions to prevent spreading it to healthy dogs.
“Even if a dog does not die from the disease, canine distemper virus can cause irreparable damage to a dog’s nervous system,” says the AVMA. “Distemper is so serious and the signs so varied that any sick dog should be taken to a veterinarian for an examination and diagnosis.”
Luckily for humans, distemper doesn’t replicate in the human body, says Mar Vista. Although humans can get infected with the virus, they won’t become ill.
How is Distemper Diagnosed?
Unfortunately, just as difficult as it is to pinpoint when a dog is in the clear from distemper, it is difficult to make an absolute diagnosis of distemper. Mar Vista explains that most veterinarians will make a “clinical diagnosis” of a dog with distemper, meaning that they will look at the overall state of a dog’s illness and make an educated determination in conjunction with test results.
“[T]he veterinarian must look at the whole picture: what symptoms are there, is the history typical, etc.,” says Mar Vista. “The virus itself remains elusive so that positive test results are meaningful in confirming the infection, but negative results do not rule it out.”
Your veterinarian may test distemper inclusion bodies, antibody levels, PCR and cerebrospinal fluid antibody levels.
How is Distemper Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for distemper or a vaccination that will destroy the virus. Treatment of the virus consists of boosting the dog’s immune system and clearing up any secondary bacterial infections, such as pneumonia.
“Treatment consists primarily of efforts to prevent secondary infections – control vomiting, diarrhea, or neurologic symptoms, and combat dehydration through administration of fluids,” says the AVMA.
A pet parent can only wait to see how the virus will progress and whether the dog’s immune system will withstand the fight.
How is Distemper Prevented?
The best thing you can do to prevent distemper in your dog is to have him vaccinated against the virus right away. Consult with your veterinarian to figure out the best vaccination program.
VetInfo.com lists the following as some minor side effects of the distemper vaccine:
Swelling at the injection site
Loss of appetite
However, some dogs may sometimes suffer more adverse symptoms, so stay alert and contact your vet if any extreme reactions occur.
Young puppies are more susceptible to distemper because of gaps in immunity between nursing with their mothers and building their own immune system. They should have a series of vaccinations administered “beginning at age 6 to 8 weeks and then every two to four weeks thereafter until age 16 weeks,” says Mar Vista. “The next vaccine is one year later. After that, subsequent vaccination boosters are given every one to three years or based on antibody levels depending on the policy of the supervising animal hospital.”
Be sure to refrain from exposing a puppy to situations where he may easily contract distemper.
“Until a puppy has received its complete series of vaccinations, pet owners should use caution when taking their pet to places where young puppies congregate (e.g., pet shops, parks, puppy classes, obedience classes, doggie daycare, and grooming establishments),” explains the AVMA. “Reputable establishments and training programs reduce exposure risk by requiring vaccinations, health examinations, good hygiene, and isolation of ill puppies and dogs.”
Mar Vista warns that if your dog has recently recovered from distemper, be careful where you take him to ensure the safety of other dogs.
Because distemper cannot be cured, and because veterinarians depend on an animal’s own immune system to fight off the virus, you can do a lot from home to help increase your dog’s chance of survival.
“As with any disease caused by a virus, treatment is largely supportive. Good animal care practices and nutrition assist dogs in mounting an effective immune response,” says the AVMA.
You can do the following to help your dog:
Make sure he stays hydrated with plenty of clean water throughout the day
Provide an optimal amount of daily exercise
Give him nutrient-rich vitamins and supplements
Bring him to the vet for regular wellness checks
Lastly, keep your dog away from wildlife that could potentially carry the disease, and away from any feces, urine or saliva left behind by wildlife.
Luckily, the distemper virus can’t survive outside of a living host’s body longer than a few minutes, says Mar Vista. Still, it’s important to take precautions when necessary. Stay vigilant and aware of any strange wildlife activity in your neighborhood.
“If you see a raccoon lying on a sidewalk in the middle of the day, call [animal services] – and keep your dog on a tight leash,” wrote Raveena Aulakh for the Toronto Star.
Pet parents should heed that advice wherever they may be. If normally nocturnal animals are found in the daytime incapacitated or deceased, animal services should be called immediately.
Preventive measures are the best way to keep your dog safe from distemper.
Find A Vet HOW TO articles are intended for informational purposes only. You should always consult with your veterinarian about any health issues affecting your dog.
PHOTO: Dawn Huczek