If rabies had a distant cousin, its name would be distemper.
Canine distemper is a serious and highly contagious disease caused by the paramyxovirus (a family of RNA viruses that pass via airborne droplets and are primarily responsible for acute respiratory disorders), also known as the canine distemper virus (CDV). It is of the same group of viruses that causes mumps, measles, and bronchitis in humans.
The distemper vaccine is a core vaccination in line with rabies, parvovirus, and canine adenovirus. Despite widespread efforts to inoculate, the disease is still seen worldwide, mostly in areas with heavy stray populations and limited vaccination or monitoring.
Other mammals such as skunks, foxes, ferrets, coyotes, mink, seals, primates, pandas, tigers, lions, leopards, and other big cats all have been diagnosed with distemper.
Like rabies, it is incurable and often fatal, with those dogs who survive left with permanent nervous system damage. It attacks the respiratory system, central nervous system, and the gastrointestinal (the digestive system), i.e., multisystemic going after organs that help in processing food, starting with the mouth, the esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, intestines, rectum, and anus.
How does it spread?
Many dog owners have heard of the dreaded kennel cough; as CDV is airborne, most puppies and dogs transmit the virus from exposure through coughing or sneezing while close to other dogs or even wild animals mentioned above.
The virus is present in the urine, blood, saliva, or respiratory droplets. Thus, distemper can also spread through shared water and food bowls, toys, or dog equipment.
Although it does thrive in the cold, as most national cases happen in late fall to winter, distemper is year-round.
Moreover, sick dogs, whether they have obvious symptoms or nearly unnoticeable, can expose other animals for months (and mama dogs can pass the disease on to their babies by the placenta).
Unlike rabies, dogs cannot spread distemper, heartworm, or canine parvovirus to humans.
Stage 1 Symptoms
The symptoms of distemper can take as much as 14 days to show and may include:
- Thick, yellow nasal and eye discharge
- Difficulty breathing or respiratory problems; Pneumonia
- Loss of appetite
- Skin sores and thickening of nose and footpads
It also goes by the name of footpad disease (pododermatitis), as one of the key and lasting symptoms is excess keratin (the fibrous protein that makes up hair, horns, claws, nails, hooves, etc.) on the paws and nose, which builds up into dry, crusty, rigid materials.
Note, while distemper does cause similar keratin excess, the virus tends to attack puppies who have not been vaccinated and comes with other life-threatening symptoms.
Rabies or Distemper?
Severe canine distemper can also cause brain inflammation and neurological symptoms and is often mistaken for rabies in the wild.
Stage 2 Symptoms:
- Circling behavior, muscle twitches, excessive saliva, and head tilt start as the virus attacks the nervous system.
- Partial or full paralysis
- Uncontrolled eye movements
- Chewing-gum seizures (dog appears to have gum in mouth)
Through your dog’s physical appearance and laboratory testing, your veterinarian will diagnose whether it is the disease.
There is no cure for canine distemper, but there is prevention and a vaccination series.
If a dog is diagnosed and survives, it will require supportive treatment moving forward: antibiotics, seizure meds, pain medicine, electrolytes, fever reducers, IV nutrition, and possibly hospitalization.
Preventing secondary infections and limiting diarrhea, vomiting, and other more serious neurological problems will be the focus. Apart from monitoring possible dehydration, an infected dog also must be separated from vulnerable other dogs to minimize the chance of spreading the virus.
Again, it is vital to seek immediate and aggressive treatment as soon as possible for sick dogs, avoid more severe symptoms, and help them recover as best they can despite some continuing symptoms.
Your vet might want to prescribe medicines to go after the virus harder, but heavy steroids, anti-inflammatories, etc., to boost their immune system may not always work.
Moreover, the survival rate and how long the infection lasts depend on the strain of the virus and your dog’s immune response. Cases have resolved as quickly as ten days, whereas some last much longer, with neurological symptoms continuing for months or more.
Untreated puppies, shelter dogs, and wild animals are at the most risk of infection and transmission.
Your puppy receives a series of shots through the first 8, 12, and 16 weeks of life, a booster after one year of completing the initial series, and then a booster every three years (or less) after that. During the time until they complete the vaccination process, be sure to:
- Keep on schedule, up to date, and on deadline for future shot appointments to continue to increase your puppy’s immunity.
- It will help if you exercise caution when your puppy is at social events like parks, classes, daycare, or other places they might gather with other dogs.
- It goes without saying to keep them away from infected animals or wildlife, as well as if you have a pet ferret, you might want to get it vaccinated with a ferret distemper vaccine.
Cleaning with household disinfectants will kill it; plus, it cannot live long outside the host.
Canine distemper shares many symptoms with other diseases like rabies, so it is crucial to monitor and seek immediate treatment if you suspect it to be the cause. Although efforts to eradicate the disease via worldwide vaccination have been ongoing since the 1970s, distemper still infects areas where vaccinations are low and stray dog populations are high.
It is still possible for the virus to make its way around via common urban wildlife like skunks and raccoons or shelter dogs in some cases. Thus, it is vital to continue the vaccination efforts to prevent distemper from coming back in full force and potentially killing many dogs worldwide.
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