6 Questions About Canine Distemper

The majority of dog owners have heard of canine distemper and know that it’s one of the vaccinations puppies are given.

But there are still many questions about this terribly contagious disease.

What is Distemper?

Canine distemper is a viral infection that is easily spread from dog to unvaccinated dog through contact with bodily fluids. Saliva, nasal discharges, urine and feces can all carry the virus and transmit it to another dog who comes into contact with those fluids. If an infected dog coughs, for example, and an unvaccinated dog breathes in the contaminated air, he can become infected.

Although canine distemper infects primarily canines, including domesticated dogs, coyotes and wolves, this disease can also infect other species. Foxes, skunks, ferrets, large cats and pandas can all catch distemper.

What Are the Symptoms?

The initial symptoms may look like any number of other diseases and so it may be initially hard to identify as distemper. These symptoms can include coughing, eye discharge, nasal discharge, a fever that comes and goes and a decreased appetite. Pneumonia may develop, the dog may have nausea and diarrhea and he will lose weight.

As the disease progresses, the discharge from the eyes and nose will thicken, which is one of the symptoms considered to be a trademark of the disease.

Additional symptoms get more severe and may include neurological problems, including weakness, a loss of balance, tremors and seizures. If neurological symptoms develop, they can last for the dog’s lifetime if he survives. Unfortunately, when the disease progresses this far, the disease can be fatal.

How is Distemper Treated?

An unvaccinated dog who has been exposed to distemper may not show any symptoms for a week and a half to three weeks.

Once the dog begins to show symptoms and the disease is diagnosed, there is no treatment for the virus itself. Instead, supportive care can lessen the symptoms to try and make the dog feel better and to prevent, if possible, secondary infections. Intravenous fluids can prevent dehydration, antibiotics can address pneumonia or other secondary infections and anti-nausea medications can lessen the upset stomach and vomiting.

If the dog has a mild case of distemper and no neurological symptoms appear, the dog may survive. However, more severe cases are difficult to treat and the prognosis is often poor. Out of those diagnosed with distemper, 50 percent of adult dogs and 80 percent of puppies succumb to it.

Should Dogs be Vaccinated?

The distemper vaccination is excellent and works well to prevent the disease. Almost all dogs who are vaccinated can resist exposure to the disease whereas unvaccinated dogs are almost sure to get sick.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends a series of vaccinations beginning in puppyhood. It recommends that puppies receive their first vaccination at six to eight weeks of age, followed by another vaccination three weeks later, then a third one three weeks after that. Many experts then recommend a booster at one year of age (or one year after the last puppy vaccination).

In years past, the general consensus was that dogs should receive a booster vaccination every year. However, that has changed. The AAHA says that immunity lasts for at least five years and for many dogs, even longer. Most veterinarians are recommending a distemper vaccination every three to five years.

Are There any Risks from Vaccinations?

Everything carries some kind of risk and vaccinations are no different. Vaccinations can cause some reactions, from mild to more severe, but they aren’t commonly seen.

Some dogs will develop redness, mild swelling and pain at the injection site. These symptoms can show up from 30 minutes after the injection to several days later. This will look and feel much like the reaction you may have developed after getting a flu shot.

Once in a while the dog’s body will over-react to the vaccination and an abscess will form. Call your veterinarian if you see a lump that is red and warm to the touch.

A few dogs will run a low grade fever and lose their appetite for a day or two after a vaccination. Some will sleep more than normal and will not be as playful as they might normally be. This usually passes in a day or so and no treatment is needed.

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening reaction to something the dog is sensitive to, such as a bee sting. It rarely happens but can occasionally happen after a vaccination. This happens more often after rabies, canine coronavirus or leptospirosis vaccinations rather than distemper. However, if your dog has sudden onset diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, shock or any other severe reaction, call your veterinarian immediately as veterinary care will be needed to save his life.

When vaccinations were given annually (rather than every three to five years) reports of cancers at vaccination sites, additional cancers, immune system diseases and other serious illnesses were increasing. Although vaccinations save lives, over-vaccinating can threaten the dog’s long term health.

What Are Titers?

The goal of vaccinations is to help the body develop antibodies to a disease so that when exposed to the disease, the dog won’t get sick. So to prevent over-vaccinations, but still make sure the dog has enough antibody protection, you can ask your veterinarian to run a titer test. A small amount of blood is drawn and is then checked for antibodies.

In years past, veterinarians had to send the blood sample to a laboratory for testing; however, now the tests are easier, less expensive and the veterinarian can do them in his clinic. By checking the antibodies prior to vaccinating, giving too many vaccinations can be prevented.

Don’t Discount Distemper

In years past, breeders, dog trainers and shelters could (and did) lose entire kennels full of dogs. Just one dog sick with distemper could potentially pass the disease to every other dog on the property.

Today, the effectiveness of the vaccination can (and has) prevented these disasters. However, to continue to save dogs’ lives, we need to continue to vaccinate and to run titer tests to check for antibodies. The disease has not been eradicated; it still shows up in domesticated dogs and in wildlife.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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