Canine distemper


CANINE DISTEMPER (often just called ‘distemper’) is a contagious, very serious virus in dogs. It affects a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems (brain). It is a terrible disease as it causes great suffering and, often, death. It is particularly dangerous to puppies under 6 months of age as their immune systems aren’t strong enough to fight it off, and they have not had all their vaccinations yet. 

Vaccinating for distemper is considered a core vaccine and, indeed, prior to the discovery of this vaccine, the disease was considered the main killer of dogs. Find out more about this disease and how you can protect your dog. 

What causes distemper?
Distemper is caused by the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) which affects canines, as well as various other animals including African wild dogs, jackals, and other wild animals like pandas, skunks, raccoons, and ferrets. It is now known that the virus can infect cats but it is usually not serious and resolves quickly.

The virus is closely related to the measles virus but it does not affect humans.

The incubation period is anything from one to six weeks; most dogs will show signs by two weeks after infection. Infected animals can be contagious for up to five days BEFORE they even show any signs of having it, and are contagious for up to four months afterwards.

What are the signs and symptoms of distemper?
Distemper impacts on three body systems: respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous system. 

It generally starts out looking a lot like the flu in humans – feeling under the weather, fever, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, irritated eyes, upset tummy. It can progress to pneumonia and severe neurological disease and, eventually, it can lead to death. 

Distemper is very variable in how it presents and progresses, dogs can recover at any stage, and it has several symptoms in common with other illnesses. It has three stages but they can overlap. Some dogs (usually adults) only get it mildly and recover swiftly, some get no symptoms at all, while others get extremely ill and can die or have catastrophic after effects. Sometimes dogs will seem to recover quickly from the mucosal phase (respiratory and gastrointestinal) but, a few weeks later, will suddenly be struck down with neurological problems.

This makes it challenging to diagnose in the beginning stages and is one reason why so many dogs go untreated until it is too late. If your dog has not had all its vaccinations and looks like it has a cold or flu, it is best to take it to the vet.

First stage

  • Fever
  • Runny nose which proceeds to a thick gooey discharge, often yellow, from eyes and/or nose.
  • Red, inflamed eyes
  • Lethargy (limp/tired) and depression (dog seems ‘down’)
  • Doesn’t really want to eat
  • Coughing – first dry, then wet
  • Sneezing

Second stage

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dehydration (loss of skin elasticity, dry/sticky gums, depression, sunken eyes, thick saliva)
  • Respiratory signs are usually still there and worsening – sometimes the discharge from eyes is so thick that they become ‘glued’ shut.
  • Pneumonia

Third stage
This is usually when neurological issues set in. Dogs that progress to this stage have a very low chance of recovery and, if they do, they will most likely have after effects.

  • Seizures
  • Muscle twitches
  • Poor coordination
  • Unsteady gait (staggering)
  • Trembling or muscle shivers
  • Chewing gum fits/seizures are a classic sign of distemper but do not occur in all infected dogs. It looks as if the dog is chewing gum as it snaps its jaws together and seems to be chewing gum.
  • Nystagmus (involuntary eye movements – it seems like the dog is looking left to right rapidly)
  • Retinal discolouration, loss of sight, blindness
  • Head tilt
  • Lameness in the legs (especially the back legs)
  • Paralysis or collapse
  • Pneumonia
  • Hardening and thickening of foot pads and nose ‘leather’
  • Dogs sometimes develop behavioural issues

This may proceed to death or the dog may ‘recover’ but be left with nervous system damage or chronic lung problems.

Why is it called distemper if it doesn’t give the dog a temper?

People sometimes think that the name refers to something to do with ‘temper’, as in how the dog behaves. It actually comes from the Middle English word (pre-1500s), distemperen, meaning ‘to upset the balance of the humours’. Humours refers to the ancient theory that four substances (humours) make up the body and that these must be in balance for good health.
Distemper is also called hard pad or footpad disease as it can cause thickening of the paw pads and nose leather.

How can my dog get it?

  • It is mainly passed between dogs through close contact as well as sneezing and coughing, which allow the virus to become airborne via droplets (a sneeze can easily travel well over a metre).
  • Contact with urine, faeces, and vomit can also transmit the virus.
  • It is also possible for the virus to be spread by sharing food/water bowls, as well as via your clothes and shoes, for example, if you held an infected sick dog or walked on an area where a sick dog has just been, and then you pick up your puppy.
  • Pregnant dogs which catch the virus can pass it on to their puppies in utero. Lactating dogs can pass it on to their nursing puppies.

Unlike the Canine Parvo Virus, it does not generally survive very long outside the body (around 3 hours at room temperature) and it can be destroyed by good cleaning with diluted bleach. However, dogs can continue to shed the virus for many months after recovery (i.e. they are still contagious even when they look fine), and the virus does survive for longer in cool environments (such as dark, shady areas or during a cold winter). Therefore, even if you don’t see any sick dogs around, you should still take precautions.

Are certain dogs more likely to get it?

All unvaccinated dogs can get distemper but puppies aged 6 weeks to 6 months are much more susceptible, both to getting infected and to developing severe symptoms, as are dogs with a compromised immune system. It is possible for some vaccinated dogs to get it but this is rare.

How will I know if my dog has canine distemper?

The only way to know for sure is for the vet to test your dog – they can test urine, blood, and mucus. The most commonly-used method is to take a swab of the discharge from the nose and/or eyes and test this using what is often called a ‘SNAP test’. The test takes around 10 minutes. It is not always 100% accurate but, combined with the symptoms and history of the animal, is helps to confirm the diagnosis.

If they are still unsure, urine, blood, or bone marrow tests may be done.

Note that SNAP tests can give false positives for distemper, especially if the test is done within 3 weeks after the vaccination so it is very important that you tell your vet if your pup has been vaccinated or not.

Is distemper curable?

No, unfortunately, there is no cure for the virus itself but vets can provide supportive treatment. This includes fluids (a drip), providing electrolytes, and administering medications to reduce coughing, seizures, nausea, fever, etc. Sometimes antibiotics are also given to combat secondary opportunistic infections like pneumonia.

Unfortunately, even with the most extensive (and expensive) supportive treatment, there is a high rate of fatality, especially with puppies, and the long-term effects for a recovered dog can be severe. Treatment can run into the tens of thousands without any guarantee of survival, which is why preventative vaccines, good health care, and proper hygiene measures are important.

Will my dog definitely die?

Not necessarily but distemper does have a high death rate – anything from 50% in adult dogs to 80% in puppies (probably way more in underdeveloped countries with animals living in sub-par conditions). We certainly see extremely high mortality rates in our work.

Even if the dog does not die straight away, the long-term effects can be disastrous. Also, given how contagious it is and how long after infection a dog is still contagious to other dogs, many dogs are put to sleep humanely to spare them suffering and reduce the chances of the virus spreading.
So, while distemper is not a definite death sentence, be aware that, even with the best of veterinary care, there is a high chance that your dog could die or suffer long-term effects. This is why prevention is so important.

Are there after effects of distemper?

Yes, there definitely can be long-term (even life-long) after effects, particularly if the dog’s infection progressed to the third stage. This can range from mild to fatal. 

Non-serious (not life-threatening) long-term effects:
• Thickened paw pads and nose leather (hence the other name, hard pad disease)
• Tooth enamel hypoplasia – weak teeth caused by poor enamel formation because the virus destroys the cells responsible for manufacturing enamel. These teeth will usually erode quickly.
• Chronic dry eye
• Twitches and tremors – these can progress to full-blown seizures or, in some cases, the dog is otherwise generally fine.

Serious and potentially life-threatening long-term effects
• Chewing gum/bubble-gum fits (classic distemper sign where it looks as if the dog is chewing gum; this usually progresses to full-body seizures)
• Seizures
• Trembling
• Paralysis
• Motor skills and mental processes progressively decline
• Going blind
• Lack of coordination
• Pneumonia

As you can see, distemper can cause a great deal of suffering and, even in dogs that have recovered from the initial infection, there may be terrible long-term effects. This is why vets often recommend euthenasia of dogs with severe or advanced distemper.

What about my other animals?

If your other dogs have had all their vaccinations, they should be safe (although a rare few vaccinated dogs can catch it). If you have other puppies which have not had all their vaccinations, they will very likely also get sick.

Be aware that a dog with distemper will still shed the virus (be contagious) for around 4 months after recovery so you will need to quarantine it to protect other dogs.

Can I get another dog or puppy afterwards?

Eventually, yes, but there is some work to be done first. If the dog has survived and is still on the property, do not bring any unvaccinated dogs in for at least 6 months.

  1. Although the virus does not survive for long outside the body, it is still best to thoroughly clean food and water bowls, the area where the sick dog stayed, their kennel (if they have one), and all areas where the dog has been.
  2. Bleach is very effective at killing the virus. Dilute 1 part bleach to 20 parts water to clean surfaces but do NOT use it on or near other animals.
  3. Heat and desiccation destroy the virus so place any possibly contaminated items outside in the full sun (e.g. beds, etc.) if you cannot wash and disinfect them with bleach, as above.
  4. Once the new dog has had ALL its vaccinations and you have cleaned the area, it should be okay to bring it onto the property but it is best to double check with your vet first.

Can I prevent my dog from getting distemper?

Yes, and it is your duty as a dog owner to do so. This is done by:

  • ensuring that your puppy gets all their vaccinations, and you take your dog for regular boosters as advised by your veterinarian,
  • taking precautions and maintaining good hygiene practices (see below),
  • looking after your pets so that they are strong and healthy by feeding them good quality food, keeing their stress levels low, etc. 

Puppies under 8 weeks must stay with their mother, not be taken out of your property, and only be handled if you have cleaned your hands properly. Once puppies are weaned, it is important that they are fed a healthy, puppy-appropriate diet so that their immune systems can develop properly. Even when they have had all their vaccinations, there is still a tiny risk of getting it but, ensuring they are healthy overall helps too.

Distemper vaccination schedule:

  • 6 to 8 weeks of age
  • 4 weeks thereafter (at around 10 – 12 weeks old)
  • 4 weeks after that (around 14 – 16 weeks old).
  • They need a booster at 12 months old.
  • Adult dogs need vaccinations every 1 – 3 years.

One vaccination is not enough to protect them so, until then, don’t take your puppy out around other dogs or where other dogs often visit until they are fully covered.

Hygiene measures
If you have a puppy which has not had all its vaccinations, or a dog with a weak immune system it’s best to observe very strict hygiene practices at all times, as follows:

  • Do not handle other dogs if you suspect that they may be unwell.
  • Remove your shoes before walking into your home. If possible, leave them outside in the sun for at least a day.
  • Always wash hands thoroughly after handling any animals and before handling your puppy.
  • If you have been in contact with a sick dog, before you interact with your puppy, head straight for the shower, remove your clothes and wash yourself and the clothes thoroughly.
  • Do not take your puppy to places where there are lots of dogs, like dog parks, etc. until they’ve had all their shots. If you go to the vet, keep your pup in a pet carrier or carry them; don’t put them on the floor and allow them to wander around. 
  • It may help to invest in a veterinary disinfectant such as F10, which you can spray onto your feet, clothes, etc. before interacting with your puppy or immune-compromised dog.

Remember that, even if you only went out to a shopping mall or restaurant and have been nowhere near sick animals, someone else may have been and could have carried traces of these bugs into the area on their shoes or clothes.

In summary, canine distemper is a dreaded disease which often results in death. Trying to treat it is costly and often unsuccessful, and leaving the animal untreated is cruel. The very best thing that you can do for your dog (and all other dogs) is to keep their vaccinations up to date and give them the very best care so that they have a strong, healthy immune system.

Although we can’t help the whole country, we aim to educate far and wide, and to continue our vaccination programme in our areas of operation – Fisantekraal, Greenville, Klipheuwel, Morning Star Durbanville, and surrounding farms – for those who can’t afford it, in conjunction with our sterilisation programme. Bear in mind that, even though we’re sticking to one area, the animals themselves do not. People often give or sell animals to other areas, so keeping the breeding in our area under control has a ripple effect outside. If each area’s animal welfares works towards this goal, things will change all over the country.

You can also help to improve the future lives of animals in impoverished areas by donating towards animal sterilisation and lobbying your local government to make funds available for mass sterilisation initiatives. It’s the only way to make a real, lasting difference AND save thousands of animals from fates worse than death.

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