Canine Distemper



When you bring your dog to the veterinarian, one of the preventative care measures generally recommended is a vaccination against a complex of viruses that includes the canine distemper virus. Many veterinary hospitals worldwide utilise a vaccine that also protects against canine parvovirus, another similarly dangerous viral infection.


Photograph: iStock

Text: Tarek Abu Sham


Canine distemper is a viral disease that affects multiple systems in animals. While dogs are the most commonly affected species, other animals can also be infected, including raccoons, which often serve as carriers for infecting other animals. The virus can affect the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory system, the nervous system, and even the skin.


Symptoms of canine distemper vary. Many animals have respiratory symptoms, such as sneezing or nasal discharge, while some have vomiting or diarrhoea. Some animals have seizures when the nervous system has been affected. One hallmark of infection with the canine distemper virus is hyperkeratosis or thickening of the paw pads.


Animals can spread canine distemper through several mechanisms. Usually, the virus is spread through direct contact, but respiratory secretions can also spread the virus, such as when a dog sneezes.


Unfortunately, many animals that get infected with canine distemper end up dying from complications. In pets that recover from the initial viral infection, lifelong neurologic conditions, such as recurrent seizures, may occur.


Diagnosis of canine distemper often requires a specialised test performed at a veterinary diagnostic laboratory. When multiple body systems are affected, or hyperkeratosis is found upon physical exam, your pet's veterinarian may suspect canine distemper.


Treatment for Canine Distemper

Unfortunately, as with many viral infections, there are no direct treatments for dogs with canine distemper. Instead, supportive care is utilised. Many dogs need to be hospitalised and receive IV fluids and care. While antibiotics are not effective against viral infections, they may help treat or prevent secondary bacterial infections, which are especially common in animals with canine distemper.


Other medications may be used to treat canine distemper infection symptoms, such as anti-diarrheal medications or anti-nausea medications, such as Maropitant or Cerenia. In dogs with neurologic signs, such as seizures, anti-seizure medication is also employed, such as Diazepam. Dogs that survive initial infection are often placed on anti-seizure medication long-term to control symptoms.


"Other medications may be used to treat canine distemper infection symptoms, such as anti-diarrheal medications or anti-nausea medications, such as Maropitant or Cerenia."

Vaccinating against Canine Distemper and preventing infection

While canine distemper is a devastating disease found throughout the world, there are highly effective vaccines available on the market. Many of these also protect against other highly infectious diseases, such as canine parvovirus.


In most cases, puppies start receiving canine distemper vaccines between 6 and 8 weeks of age. The vaccine boosters are traditionally given every 3 to 4 weeks until puppies are at least 16 weeks old. In most cases, a series of at least 3 vaccines are used. Depending on your dog's risk factors, the area you live, and the vaccine your veterinarian uses, you should boost your dog's canine distemper vaccine every 1 or 3 years.


Vaccinating is the most important thing you can do to prevent infection in domesticated dogs. Because wildlife and stray dogs may also be carriers for infection, dogs should be supervised, and contact with potentially infected animals should be minimised.


While canine distemper was a relatively common viral infection in dogs, the widespread use of vaccines has significantly helped diminish infection in many areas. Your veterinarian can help you determine how often your dog needs to receive the vaccination based on risk factors such as possible exposure. If your veterinarian suspects infection with canine distemper, intensive supportive care will likely be required to give your dog the best chance at recovery.

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