Canine Distemper

It seems that every week, new symptoms get added to the growing list of COVID-19 symptoms.  I told hubby that the more I learn about COVID-19, the more it is reminding me of the canine distemper virus.  Thankfully, due to vaccination, canine distemper is not nearly as common as it used to be.  But I saw it quite a bit when I first started working for a local veterinarian in the late 70s and early 80s and I saw it in veterinary school in the early to mid 80s and while in practice, although less and less as time went by.

Distemper was a disease I hated seeing in practice (second only to parvovirus).  Like COVID-19, Distemper’s symptoms are many and varied and that is because distemper can affect just about every tissue and organ in the body.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

What is Canine Distemper

Distemper, also called Hard Pad disease,  is a highly contagious virus (a member of the Paramyxo viruses).  The virus is closely related and in the same virus family as the measles virus (that’s why the temporary distemper vaccines we gave to puppies from 4-6 weeks of age in the practice I worked in, was actually called a Distemper-measles vaccine).  Distemper is most commonly found in puppies but dogs of all ages can contract distemper.  It is highly fatal and greater than 50% of adult dogs that contract distemper will die from it.  In puppies, the death rate can be as high as 80%.  Dogs can recover from distemper but they often are left permanently impaired.  It can damage a dog’s neurological system, leaving them with strange “tics” or twitching, partial or complete paralysis, or seizures.

Besides our domestic dogs, distemper is also common in foxes, wolves, coyotes, skunks, ferrets, mink, and raccoons.

How do animals get Distemper? 

The distemper virus is transmitted by direct or indirect contact with the discharges from an infected animal’s respiratory secretions.  It is considered an airborne illness spread by the droplets of infected dogs coughing and sneezing.  It can also be spread by inanimate objects such as food and water bowls, hair brushes, and collars and leashes.  A recovered animal can continue to pass the virus for several months.

What are the symptoms of Canine Distemper?

Early signs of the disease often mimic a bad cold and the animal will have a fever, decreased appetite, lethargy and a nasal discharge.  Like I said, distemper can effect every tissue type in the body.

Respiratory system symptoms:

  • nasal discharge (often starts watery, but then becomes yellowish/green)
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • red, congested eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • ocular discharge (also can start as a clear discharge which then becomes mucopurulent  and resembles pus)
  • bronchitis
  • pneumonia

Gastrointestinal system symptoms:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • weight loss
  • anorexia (which can also be due to the stuffed up nose and inability to smell food)

Nervous system symptoms:

  • partial or complete paralysis
  • tics or muscle twitching often referred to as chorea
  • convulsions with “chewing gum fits” of the jaw
  • generalized seizures
  • head tilts
  • circling
  • an inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • nystagmus (rapid and uncontrolled eye movements)

Dermatological system symptoms:

an overgrowth or hypertrophy of the skin of the paw pads and nose (hard pad disease).  If you see a dog with a very dried out, crusty hard nose and hard paw pads, the dog probably had distemper at some time in its life.  I acquired an adult white German Shepherd while in veterinary school and while I didn’t know too much about his background or medical history, I always suspected he had had distemper as a pup as he had hard paw pads.  His nose tissue was normal.  He seemed to have a chronic clear nasal discharge throughout the remainder of his life.  I also witnessed a mild seizure in him once (what we used to refer to as petit mal seizures – I think they call them Absence seizures now).  

Typical appearance of canine distemper showing hyperkeratosis of nose and paw pads (hardpad disease).  Note the nasal and ocular discharges

Diagnosis and Treatment of Distemper

Distemper can be difficult to diagnose as the early signs can often be symptoms of many other illnesses.  The characteristic signs of distemper that are unmistakable often don’t show up until later in the disease.  Distemper is often diagnosed through a combination of clinical signs combined with laboratory work (blood tests).

There is no cure for distemper.  Treatment is supportive.  Supportive treatment is just treating the various individual symptoms and making the dog more comfortable with good nursing care, and good common sense things like providing adequate nutrition, and providing a warm, dry comfortable place while the animal is recovering.  One goal is to treat secondary infections (such as bronchitis and pneumonia and intestinal infections) with antibiotics.  Nasal and ocular discharges need to be cleaned frequently and eye ointments applied as needed.  Sometimes the animal needs to be coaxed to eat or force fed or even tube fed to provide adequate nutrition to recover.  I often used to give B- complex and Vitamin B-12 injections to help boost the appetite.  IV fluids are given to treat dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities.  Medications are given to treat vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures.

Prevention of Canine Distemper

It is important to isolate infected individuals to prevent the spread of distemper.  Keep your dog away from infected animals and wildlife!

The best protection is vaccination.  A series of vaccines is necessary in puppies to build adequate immunity (check with your veterinarian as they probably have their own individual vaccine schedule).  A yearly booster is recommended once puppy vaccinations are complete.

Use precaution in taking young susceptible puppies to puppy classes, obedience classes, doggy daycare, puppy socialization classes, and dog parks.

We used a diluted bleach solution to disinfect our distemper cages and ward floors and to disinfect dog bowls, floors, etc.  A dilution of 1 part bleach to 30 parts water is effective.  Distemper is said to only survive a few hours in the environment at room temperature when it leaves the animal’s body.  It can survive longer in colder environments.

I think you can see why I think about distemper virus when I hear about the growing symptoms of COVID-19.  Like distemper, COVID-19 seems to have the ability to affect the entire body.  Have you ever seen an animal or had any experience with distemper? 

Gail ♥ 

About Gail

I am a wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, veterinarian, and wanna be writer. I love nature and animals of all kinds, music, cooking, and spending time with my family.
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