by Lorie Huston, DVM
Canine distemper is a disease that most commonly affects puppies and young dogs. It is caused by a virus that can spread easily through an unimmunized (unprotected) population. Fortunately, adult dogs often develop some degree of immunity with age and are less likely to develop the disease.
How Is Canine Distemper Spread?
Canine distemper is spread through respiratory secretions that are aerosolized when an infected dog coughs. It is spread particularly rapidly in situations where dogs, especially puppies, are housed in a confined area. For this reason, canine distemper can become a problem in shelters, rescues and pet stores.
Symptoms of Canine Distemper
Distemper usually starts with respiratory symptoms, such as runny eyes, a runny nose, coughing, lack of appetite and a fever. Pneumonia may be present also. Diarrhea and vomiting may be seen as the disease progresses.
Canine distemper may also cause the nose and foot pads to become callused, leading to the name “hard pad disease”.
If the puppy survives these initial symptoms, he may appear to recover for a time. Neurological symptoms often take one to three weeks to develop. These symptoms may include seizures, muscle tremors, incoordination and weakness.
Canine distemper can be a fatal disease. It is also possible for a dog to make a partial recovery but suffer permanent neurological damage.
Treatment of Canine Distemper
There is no specific cure for canine distemper. Treatment is symptomatic and aimed at relieving the symptoms.
Dogs with canine distemper may require antibiotics to combat pneumonia. Fluid therapy may be necessary to keep the dog hydrated. Anti-emetics may be required to control nausea and vomiting. Additional treatment may be necessary if the dog is having seizures or experiencing other neurological difficulties.
Preventing Canine Distemper
Vaccinations against canine distemper are effective in preventing the disease. However, in very young puppies (less than 3- 4 months of age), antibodies passed from the mother to the puppy may interfere with the ability of the vaccine to protect the puppy. This is the reason that the vaccine is recommended every 2-4 weeks for young puppies.
Generally, puppies should be started on the canine distemper vaccine at 6-8 weeks of age and should receive follow-up vaccinations every 2-4 weeks until 14-16 weeks of age, depending on the product used to vaccinate. The vaccine should be repeated in one year. Following the one year vaccine, dogs should be vaccinated at least every three years although some veterinarians recommend yearly vaccines.
The canine distemper vaccine is usually administered as part of a multi-valent vaccine that also protects your dog against adenovirus and parvovirus. This vaccine is commonly referred to as a “DAP” vaccine. Some vaccines also provide protection against other diseases, such as leptospirosis.
Currently, she is the feature writer for the Pet Care section at Suite101.com and the National Pet Health Examiner at Examiner.com. Lorie also publishes her own blog, The Pet Health Care Gazette and manages an increasingly popular facebook page, The Voice of Pet Care.
In addition, she co-moderates #BarkOutLoud, a weekly twitter chat that focuses on a variety of dog topics.