Canine Distemper Virus: Signs and Symptoms

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Dogs have been man’s best friend since prehistoric times. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the United States is home to over 69 million dogs with an average 2.6 annual visits to the vet per each household.

Even before they became our best friends, dogs have had to grapple with a wide range of diseases and disorders, and while you can do your best to keep your pups healthy, they can still ultimately come down with the occasional illness.

Canine distemper is one of the most common illnesses among dogs. This article will take a closer look at this illness, the signs and symptoms you should keep an eye out for, and treatment options to help your pup get back into great shape.

What is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper, alternately known as hardpad disease, is a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease that is most common in dogs but can be found in a variety of other animals, including coyotes, wolves, foxes, pandas, skunks, and ferrets.

Canine distemper should sound familiar to any dog owner because its vaccine is one of the core vaccinations given to dogs, along with the rabies, parvovirus, and canine adenovirus vaccines.

What Causes Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is caused by a virus in the Paramyxoviridae family. The viruses that cause human measles, rinderpest in cattle, and seal distemper also belong to this same family.

The virus spreads quickly through a dog’s body, attacking the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and nervous systems. It can affect any dog of any breed, but puppies and dogs who have not been vaccinated are at a higher risk of getting canine distemper.

How Does Canine Distemper Spread?

Canine distemper can spread through three general means:

  • Direct contact with an object or animal infected with the canine distemper virus
  • Airborne exposure to the virus
  • Through the placenta

In a lot of ways, the canine distemper virus is like the common cold virus in humans. When a dog or wild animal carrying the virus coughs, barks, or sneezes, it releases the virus into the air via microscopic water droplets. If your dog was to breathe those droplets in or come into contact with a food or water bowl that the droplets landed on, he may end up contracting the virus.

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The good news is that the virus can’t last long out in the open, on surfaces throughout your home. You can easily eliminate the virus with a household cleaner or disinfectant. Unfortunately, dogs with distemper can shed the virus for months, so even if the dog has been treated or shows no symptoms, they may still be able to spread it to other pups they meet.

What makes distemper even more difficult to deal with is that it is so prevalent in wildlife. Raccoons, wolves, foxes, skunks, coyotes, and other common critters can get distemper. An outbreak of distemper in your local wildlife makes it easier for your dog to potentially contract the virus without ever even coming into contact with another dog.

Symptoms of Canine Distemper

Canine distemper can exhibit itself through a variety of symptoms that vary based on the advancement of the disease and your own pup’s health and immune system. When the virus enters your dog’s system, it proceeds to the lymphatic tissue in his respiratory tract where it reproduces and spreads to the rest of the lymphatic system, the gastrointestinal tract, the urogenital epithelium, the optic nerves, and the central nervous system.

The complexity of this spread leads to symptoms happening in two different stages. In wildlife, the symptoms of distemper resemble those of rabies.

Stage One of Canine Distemper

The initial symptoms of canine distemper that are most obvious are a sudden loss of appetite, watery or pus-like discharge from the nose and eyes, and a high fever usually going above 103.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The fever usually develops 3 to 6 days after the initial infection, but all symptoms depend on the severity of the virus and your dog’s immune system.

Other general symptoms you can expect in this first stage of distemper include:

If the infection persists, your dog can develop hyperkeratosis of his nose and paw pads, which is where canine distemper gets its alternate name of hardpad disease. Your dog’s pads literally harden, thicken, and enlarge, causing significant pain and discomfort.

Canine distemper also puts your pup at risk of a secondary bacterial infection. The distemper virus heavily compromises your dog’s immune system, allowing for an easy backdoor for secondary infections. Secondary bacterial infections can cause a variety of symptoms in your dog’s respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Labored or difficult breathing
  • Pneumonia
  • Changes in respiratory rate

Stage Two of Canine Distemper

As the virus progresses, it can eventually make its way to your dog’s central nervous system and cause some serious damage. In the secondary stage, your dog may exhibit neurological signs that can be disturbing for the owner. These neurological symptoms include:

  • Head tilting
  • Circling
  • Seizures
  • Full or partial paralysis
  • Muscle twitches
  • Repetitive eye movements (known as nystagmus)
  • Convulsions accompanied by chewing motions and increased salivation

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Diagnosing Canine Distemper

Vets do have effective tests to determine if your dog is suffering from canine distemper, but the results of these tests may not always be reliable. Instead of testing just for canine distemper, your vet will probably take a look at the bigger picture, from your dog’s health history to specific symptoms to physical examination, to truly determine if your dog has distemper and what stage it may have progressed to.

Some common tests that vets perform to diagnose canine distemper include:

  • Urine analysis – This test may show a reduced number of lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that operate as a first line of defense in the disease’s initial stages
  • Serology test – A serology test can show an increase in antibodies, but the test can’t discern between increases caused by a viral infection and antibodies from a vaccination.
  • Radiograph (x-ray) – Your vet might use x-rays, but these are only generally used to determine if a dog has contracted pneumonia.
  • CT and MRI scans – These imaging scans can help the vet see if your dog has any lesions on his brain.

While positive results can confirm that your pup is suffering from an infection, your dog may still be infected even with negative test results.

Treatment for Canine Distemper

Sadly, there is no cure for canine distemper. Once distemper has been diagnosed, care aims at supporting your dog’s health and relieving individual symptoms. The three main goals for treatment include:

  • Preventing secondary infections
  • Controlling any vomiting, diarrhea, and neurological symptoms
  • Preventing dehydration and rehydrating your pup via intravenous fluids

Your dog will likely be hospitalized and separated from other dogs to lower the risk of spreading the infection. Your vet can prescribe antibiotics to treat the symptoms of a secondary bacterial infection. Your vet can control seizures and convulsions using potassium bromide or phenobarbitals.

The length of the infection and the survival rate of dogs with canine distemper depends on the specific strain of the virus and your dog’s individual immune system. Some cases of canine distemper can resolve in as quickly as 10 days, but other cases can last for weeks or months. Your dog may still exhibit neurological symptoms of the disease months after being treated.

In many cases, distemper is fatal. It’s not uncommon for dogs that survive distemper to have permanent, irreversible damage to their nervous systems. These symptoms may not exhibit themselves until years later when your dog has reached old age. However, fully recovered pups are not carriers of the virus nor can they spread it.

How to Prevent Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is a terrible disease, but it is entirely preventable! The best thing you can do to prevent distemper is to make sure your pup gets his full series of distemper vaccinations. Most dogs receive their distemper shots between 4 and 20 weeks of age. Some vets will recommend that your dog receive his first vaccination at six to eight weeks old and then continue every 2 to 4 weeks until the dog is 16 weeks old.

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Regardless of the regimen, most pups should end their vaccination series at four to five months old. From there, your vet will recommend booster shots throughout your dog’s life to keep your dog’s natural immunities up to date. It is crucial that you do not avoid any gaps in vaccinations.

Vaccination is especially important if you plan on breeding. Female dogs can spread the canine distemper virus through the placenta to their puppies. Talk to your vet and fully vaccinate any dog that you plan to breed.

Vaccines generally comprise some form of a live distemper virus introduced into your dog’s system so that he may develop natural immunities. Surprisingly, the vaccine for measles has also been found to help dogs gain a greater immunity to distemper. There is a small chance that your pup might have side effects from the distemper vaccine, including:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Irritation at the site of the injection
  • A lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite

These symptoms are ultimately harmless and should not last long. Not all dogs will experience a negative reaction to the vaccine. The small risk of side effects that will quickly pass far outweigh the risk of your dog actually getting sick with the distemper virus.

Furthermore, keep your dog away from infected animals or wildlife. Pay attention to local news for any information about local breakouts.

If your dog has not been vaccinated or is still a puppy going through vaccinations, be careful of socializing him. This is especially true of areas where dogs tend to congregate, including daycare, dog parks, and training classes.

Make sure you also keep your home clean. Routinely disinfect your dog’s everyday items, like his kennel, bed, and food and water bowls, to eliminate viruses that may be lingering in his living environment.

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