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Canine Distemper Virus: What You Need to Know

Learn about the virus that causes canine distemper.

Distemper is a disease caused by a virus. It attacks dogs and puppies and causes serious GI, respiratory, and nervous system problems. It's incredibly contagious between dogs and is also carried by many types of wildlife.

Cause of Distemper in Dogs

Distemper is caused by a virus that is usually spread through airborne exposure. The sneezing and coughing of an affected animal spread the virus through the air, where it is inhaled by another animal. It can also be contracted by sharing water and food bowls with an infected animal.

Puppies can be infected by their mothers in utero.

When local wildlife populations experience an outbreak of canine distemper, domestic dogs in the area often have a spike in the disease too.

There is an effective vaccination against canine distemper, but young puppies that haven't had their shots yet and whose mothers aren't vaccinated are at risk for contracting the virus as well as dogs that don't receive all the proper puppyhood or adult boosters.

Signs of Canine Distemper

If a dog contracts distemper virus, he may show some or all of the following signs:

  • Opaque discharge from the eyes
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased or absent appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Circling behavior
  • Head tilt
  • Muscle twitches
  • Seizures with jaw twitching and drooling
  • Paralysis
  • Thickening and hardening of the paw pads

Diagnosis of Canine Distemper

Veterinarians diagnose canine distemper based on physical exam, history of non-vaccination or overdue vaccines, and lab work.

Treatment of Distemper in Dogs

There is no specific treatment for distemper virus. Supportive care is required to support the dog as his body fights the illness. Fluids, medications to combat vomiting, and control of secondary bacterial infections may all be performed.

Dogs diagnosed with distemper must be confined away from other dogs, and those handling them need to take great care to clean themselves and their clothing thoroughly before contacting other dogs.

Distemper is usually fatal, and dogs that do survive often have permanent neurological deficits.

Prevention of Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is prevented through proper vaccination. Puppies receive a series of vaccinations against the virus beginning at around six to eight weeks of age and done every three to four weeks until sixteen weeks of age. After that, a booster vaccination is done one year later and then every one to three years throughout the dog's life.

One of the most critical periods for puppies with regards to contracting distemper is when they are in the middle of their vaccine schedule. Unfortunately, that is also the best time for socialization (having the puppy around lots of other dogs and people). Consult with your veterinarian, but the usual recommendation is to avoid dog parks, grooming facilities, and pet stores until your puppy is finished with his initial set of vaccinations.

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