Hands up if you've heard of distemper. Keep your hand up if you actually know what it is and how it affects your dog.
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
Distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV). It's a cruel disease that attacks the body's respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems, potentially leading to long-lasting side effects and even death.
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.
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
Canine distemper virus is highly contagious and can be fatal. It's found all around the world and puppies between the age of three and six months are most likely to contract and die from the disease.
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
In most cases, vets will base their diagnosis on your dog's clinical signs. This is due to the fact that testing for the disease is difficult and can often return false positives, so your vet will observe your dog's condition and take a full history to rule out any other problems.
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.
By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Published: 04/03/2018, edited: 04/06/2020