How To Treat Distemper In Dogs

Dog Health April 13, 2024
How To Treat Distemper In Dogs
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How To Treat Distemper In Dogs

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How To Treat Distemper In Dogs

There is no cure for canine distemper and over 50% of dogs and 80% of puppies who contract it will die. Dogs who survive may have permanent damage to their nervous systems and suffer from seizures or paralysis for the rest of their lives.

Treatment usually consists of constant nurturing in order to prevent secondary infections. Dogs infected with distemper must be separated from other animals to minimize the risk of further infection.

Distemper is one of the most serious diseases your dog can contract but it is also one of the most preventable. In this article, we discuss symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and prevention methods that every dog owner should be aware of. 

What Is Distemper in Dogs?

Distemper in dogs is a highly contagious virus that is often fatal and affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems in all life stages. It can be spread between dogs, ferrets, and infected wildlife such as foxes, raccoons, wolves, skunks, and coyotes.

A paramyxovirus is closely related to the measles and rinderpest viruses and causes distemper in dogs. This virus causes severe illness in its host by attacking several body systems, which results in a widespread infection that is difficult to treat.

If your dog is up-to-date on his vaccinations, distemper should sound familiar because the distemper vaccine is considered one of the core vaccinations in dogs, as well as the parvovirus, canine adenovirus, and rabies vaccines. .

Distemper in dogs can be transmitted in several ways. Airborne exposure can occur when liquid from an infected animal’s nose contaminates your dog directly or via their environment. Another way is through direct exposure to an infected animal, as well as when a pup is in utero through the placenta.

Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs

The clinical signs of distemper in dogs occur in stages and in three main body systems, which are the gastrointestinal tract, the upper respiratory tract, and the central nervous system.

In its early stages, your dog may show signs of an upper respiratory disease by displaying high fever, coughing, sneezing, lethargy, and nasal and eye discharge. This is often mistaken for other respiratory tract infections in dogs, such as influenza, parainfluenza, and Bordetella.

Distemper in dogs is closely related to measles in humans so if a human has been vaccinated and is immune to measles, then they will also be immune to canine distemper. There have been some studies that show that humans can potentially be infected with distemper but will not show any symptoms at all.  Distemper in dogs cannot be passed on to cats, like other problems such as skin irritations, mange, fleas, etc.  However, there is a feline distemper that is known as feline panleukopenia.

Here are some early signs and symptoms of dog distemper:

  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • mild eye inflammation
  • temperature above 103 degrees
  • depression
  • discharge from eye
  • nasal discharge
  • sudden weakness
  • diarrhea
  • lethargy

When distemper affects the lungs and upper respiratory tract, your dog may have the following symptoms:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • vomiting
  • discharge from the eye
  • green discharge from nostril
  • diarrhea
  • cough and labored breathing
  • runny nose

Dogs will have the following symptoms if distemper affects the brain and spinal cord, causing secondary bacterial infections:

  • seizures
  • depression
  • poor muscle coordination
  • hard pad disease
  • uncontrollable muscle twitch
  • abnormal increase in sensitivity to stimuli of the senses
  • partial or incomplete paralysis 
  • deterioration of mental abilities

Risk Factors

Puppies between 3 and 6 months of age are more susceptible to more serious conditions, such as inflammatory illnesses of the lung and acute inflammation of the brain, than older dogs. Nursing puppies have a lower chance of contracting the distemper virus because a certain degree of immunity is passed down to puppies through colostrum-milk, but this can only be done by giving colostrum milk during the first 8 to 24 hours after birth.

Older dogs have very little chance of becoming infected or exposed to the distemper virus because of the immunity buildup; however, there have been cases where a 7-year-old dog has been infected with distemper.

Seasons like summer or warm weather can put distemper in a dormant state and lower its rate of contagion . However, dog distemper is most malicious during early spring, fall and winter. The incubation period ranges from approximately 3 to 21 days but could be longer depending on other factors such as seasons, temperature and more.

Distemper in Dogs Diagnosis

How To Treat Distemper In Dogs

There is no simple test for distemper in dogs and in fact, diagnosing it can be quite tricky. Your veterinarian will start with a thorough examination that includes vitals like heart rate, weight, and rectal temperature, as well as a detailed history. The history will include questions about where you adopted your puppy, vaccine status and any other information you may have about his history.

If your vet suspects distemper, one of several tests will be recommended. The first step will be running blood tests to check red and white blood cell counts, and organ function. If caught early enough, there may be mild anemia and a low white blood cell count. Your veterinarian may also look at a blood smear for small inclusion bodies noted in your dog’s white blood cells if infected. This is a less common way to determine distemper but is sometimes effective.

If your vet suspects a secondary illness like pneumonia, then chest x-rays will be recommended, and most likely a urinalysis will be taken. There are additional laboratory tests that can be used to help diagnose distemper in dogs. One of the more commonly used is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which works in detecting distemper in dogs who have not yet been vaccinated against it but can not distinguish between a dog who is actually infected with distemper and a dog who has been vaccinated against it.

However, recently, a test is offered that could differentiate between the vaccine antibodies and the actual distemper virus. If your dog is infected with distemper, the level of replicating virus is exponentially higher than what is found in a vaccine. This new test can provide actual levels of the vaccine strain present, helping to determine actual distemper or a distemper vaccination.

Another test that your veterinarian can use is an immunofluorescence assay (IFA) but this test is usually only positive during the first three weeks of contracting distemper. Unfortunately, distemper isn’t usually suspected until your dog shows signs of neurological issues. It would be beyond the timeline that this test would be effective in determining the presence of distemper.

In the end, diagnosing distemper is determined through a combination of your dog’s history, veterinary examination, tests from blood, and urine, or a swab of the eye. Sometimes even all of these tests do not confirm distemper in your dog.

Treatment for Distemper in Dogs

If your dog is diagnosed with distemper, he should be admitted to a veterinary hospital for treatment and isolation. Isolation is very important in preventing the spread of the disease and infected dogs should only be handled by people wearing personal protective equipment. 

Currently, there is no antiviral drug available for treating distemper in dogs. Because dogs with distemper usually do not want to eat or drink they become dehydrated from diarrhea. This means they are susceptible to secondary bacterial infections, so treatment is generally focused on preventative care. This can include antibiotics, intravenous fluids and keeping nasal and eye discharge clean. If secondary infections are kept at bay and the fever is gone, your dog should regain his appetite.

Your dog’s overall health as well as his symptoms play a big part in his recovery from distemper. More severe symptoms like seizures are usually a sign of a lower chance of recovery. However, dogs who do recover will not carry the distemper virus permanently and are not considered contagious.

How Long Does it Take for the Vaccine to Work?

In most dogs over five months of age immunity takes about two weeks to develop after vaccination. Your dog’s immune system must be given time to recognize the virus and then create antibodies for it. If your dog is exposed to distemper during this time he  can still contract it but most likely in a milder case.

There are always some small number of dogs who will not respond to the vaccine for many reasons. In puppies under five months of age, antibodies passed through the placenta and through the first day of nursing can prevent the vaccine from working. The time frame that these antibodies become inactivated is different for every puppy and that is why the vaccine is given in a series. Puppies can develop antibodies earlier but should not be considered safe until the vaccination series is complete.

Preventing Distemper in Dogs 

Vaccinations for distemper in dogs are available at all veterinary clinics and are very effective. The two types of distemper vaccines are modified live and recombinant. Modified live vaccines  offer the strongest protection from the disease but also pose a small risk of contracting distemper. However, according to veterinary experts, the chances of this happening are highly unusual and the risk is smaller than the much greater risk of getting distemper from other infected dogs.

The other type of distemper vaccine is a recombinant vaccine that has been produced through recombinant DNA technology. This type of vaccine has no chance of ever converting to a pathogenic strain, but are considered less effective than the modified live vaccines. More recent studies show that they are just as effective as the modified live vaccines, and are currently being used more often.

As mentioned above, because of the possibility that maternal antibodies can interfere with puppies under five months, they should not be considered protected against distemper until they have received a vaccine series once they are past 18 to 20 weeks of age.

What Dogs Are Most at Risk for Distemper?

All dogs are at risk of contracting distemper, but dogs who are not vaccinated and puppies under four months old are more susceptible. The age of a dog does not increase or decrease the risk of getting distemper, so if your dog or puppy displays any symptoms it is best to call your vet immediately.

Final Thoughts

Distemper in dogs is caused by a virus that infects the lungs, airways,  eyes, nose, brain and suppresses the immune system. It is not exclusive to dogs and can also infect raccoons, skunks, foxes, and large cats like lions and tigers. To date there is no treatment that stops the virus but your vet can offer treatment to fight the secondary infections, while your dog’s body fights it. If you suspect your dog might have distemper, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.


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Amy Towry is a Certified NAVC Pet Nutritionist and pet lover. She is the proud owner of two rescue cats and a rescue dog and her love for animals has led her to a successful career as a freelance writer specializing in pet care, nutrition, and product reviews.
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