Canine distemper, a viral disease that is found in dogs is extremely contagious and affects the entire body. The main symptoms include fever, inflammation of vital organs like the lungs and even the brain. Low white blood count is another indication. The dog family Canidae, which include wolves and foxes besides dogs, as well as animals like the mink, ferrets and skunks that belong to the Mustelidae family, happens to be the most affected though it may have a wider distribution in the wild.
The virus infects a dog when it inhales the contaminated breath of another infected animal as the moisture in the breath contains the organism. Some dogs may continue to be infectious even when they no longer display the symptoms of distemper.
The first symptom of the disease to is a fever that lasts only a short while. It appears within 3-6 days of getting infected. If the dog’s blood is tested at this stage, low WBC count might be detected. Another symptom is lack of appetite, which often escapes notice. After this first bout of fever clears up, another one appears after several days, accompanied nasal discharge, runny eyes and appetite loss. Some respiratory symptoms may appear along with gastrointestinal symptoms, but secondary bacterial diseases may add to the complication.
The most identifiable sign of the disease is the hardening of the footpads due to excessive skin growth, hence the name ‘hardpad’ used to refer to it. When this symptom occurs, it is usually seen along with certain other signs of the disease affecting the central nervous system such as:
- Localized muscle twitching in the face or the legs
- Weakness and lack of coordination of leg muscles mainly in the hind legs
- Paralysis, either partial or complete, of all the limbs
- Convulsions accompanied by chewing motion of the jaw and drooling.
This kind of seizures, called ‘chewing gum fits’, increase in severity as well as frequency with the progression of the disease. Falling sideways and making paddling motions is common. The dog may lose control over bowel movements and urination. In some cases, the above neurologic symptoms may not be displayed in the initial period of the disease lasting about 10 days, but may appear after many weeks or even months.
The neurologic symptoms typical of this long-term type of distemper result from inflammation occurring in the brain. Loss of muscle coordination and involuntary motions like pacing without stop and pressing of the head indicate this condition which is progressive in nature. Some dogs may display these neurologic symptoms without displaying any of the initial signs of distemper earlier. Dogs having this type of disease are not infectious.
When a puppy is brought to the veterinarian with fever and symptoms of other infections, distemper is often suspected. When the typical symptoms of the disease are present, it is easy to confirm it, but in many cases they are displayed only after the disease has progressed considerably. Other bacterial and viral diseases may be present in the puppy, complicating matters further. Hence only blood tests are reliable to make the correct diagnosis.
Treating distemper is limited to maintaining fluid support and administering drugs to reduce neurologic symptoms and controlling secondary bacterial infections. Antipyretics to reduce fever, analgesics for pain, and anticonvulsants to reduce the seizures are given according to requirement, besides standard antibiotics and dietary support. With continuous nursing care, some dogs may achieve complete recovery, but in many cases, even the most intensive care cannot help the dog. Treatment is rarely successful in those who have neurological symptoms. Euthanizing the dog may be most appropriate way to deal with severe or steadily deteriorating type of neurologic distemper, even though some dogs have responded favorably to treatments with steroids and other anti-inflammatory medications that modify the immune system.
Vaccinating the puppies against distemper virus is the best way to prevent this disease. The first dose of the vaccine is administered when the puppies are 6 weeks in age. Subsequent doses are repeated every 2-4 weeks until the puppies reach 14-16 weeks of age. From then on annual boosters are recommended as dogs which are stressed or those who have weak immune system are prone to developing the neurologic form of the distemper. The vet may take into account the pet’s health and certain other risk factors, such as the prevalence of distemper in the area, before suggesting the right vaccination regimen for your pet.