While most people have heard of canine distemper, few know exactly what this contagious virus is, how it's spread and the symptoms it produces. We'll cover all those points further down the page, but for now, let's focus on the fact that distemper kills more dogs than any other infectious disease.
However, despite this high fatality rate, a diagnosis of distemper isn't necessarily a death sentence. Even better, distemper is almost 100 percent preventable, so keep reading to find out how you can protect your furry friend.
Signs of Canine Distemper
However, the first symptoms of the disease can often be mild and may be missed by owners. Fever, a runny nose, coughing, a lack of appetite and mild discharge from the eyes are the initial symptoms to look for, but it's worth pointing out that not all dogs who contract the virus will become seriously ill. Some dogs with strong immune systems will be able to fight the virus off on their own, but those less fortunate will face a tough road ahead.
The progression and seriousness of the disease can vary depending on your pet's age, their overall health and the strain of the virus they've contracted. Symptoms to look for include continued fever, vomiting and diarrhea, depression, thick mucus coming from the eyes and nose, a depletion of white blood cells and the hardening of the pads of the feet.
As the disease progresses, it attacks the brain and spinal cord, potentially producing a variety of distressing symptoms. These include slobbering, head shaking, seizure-like symptoms, depression, confusion, and rhythmic muscle jerking.
Of course, if you notice any signs or symptoms of distemper, the best thing you can do is get your dog to the vet as soon as possible.
- Tense jaw
- Dropped Ears
- Head bobbing
- Runny nose
- Discharge from eyes
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Lethargy or lack of appetite
- Muscle spasms
- Other neurological symptoms
The History of Canine Distemper
Like many other diseases, the exact origins of distemper are somewhat murky. Descriptions of a disease affecting dogs that may well have been distemper date as far back as the 11th century in Bohemia, but it wasn't until the mid-18th century that accounts became more widespread.
A similar-sounding disease was mentioned in 1740s France and 1750s Germany, while the 1760s saw some horrendous outbreaks across Europe. In Madrid in 1763, one outbreak reportedly caused the deaths of 900 dogs in just one day.
So, where did it come from? We don't know. As they have done throughout much of history, the British and French were keen to blame one another. In 1828, British vet and author of The Dog William Youatt wrote: "It [distemper] is a comparatively new disease. It was imported from France about one hundred years since, although some French authors have strangely affirmed that it is of British origin."
Another theory suggests that distemper was brought to mainland Europe in 1760 by a group of dogs that arrived in Spain from Peru, but the truth is we really don't know.
What we do know is that the first vaccine against canine distemper was developed in the 1920s, making it simple to protect your dog against this nasty disease.
The Science of Canine Distemper
Once a dog is infected with distemper, they can easily spread it to other members of the canine population. The virus can be found in all body secretions, including urine and feces, but is most commonly spread via airborne particles from breathing. It's also worth pointing out that distemper doesn't just affect dogs, so it can also be spread by raccoons, foxes and skunks.
Unvaccinated puppies are most at risk of contracting distemper. While many dogs will only show mild symptoms or potentially no symptoms at all, if left untreated the virus can have lifelong consequences and even cause death.
Treating Canine Distemper
Unfortunately, there's no cure for distemper. Instead, treatment focuses on providing supportive care for the many symptoms that accompany the virus and to prevent new infections from occurring. Treatment may include:
- Antibiotics to prevent secondary infections
- Intravenous fluids to tackle dehydration
- Anti-seizure medication
- Medications to control vomiting and diarrhea
The level of success you can expect from these treatments varies depending on how old your dog is, the strain of distemper they're infected with, and how quickly you seek veterinary help. The good news is that if your dog does survive distemper, they'll be immune to any further attacks from the virus.
How to Prevent Distemper:
Vaccinate! You can protect your dog against distemper by getting them vaccinated. The distemper shot usually includes vaccines for other conditions, such as parvovirus and parainfluenza, providing crucial protection for your pet.
Provide more than one shot. Puppies are given a series of shots, with the first given at around six to eight weeks of age. They then receive shots every four weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age.
Seek ongoing protection. Your dog will then be given another shot one year after finishing their puppy vaccinations, followed by booster shots every one to three years after that.