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Canine Distemper

By: Dr. Bari Spielman

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Canine distemper is a highly contagious disease caused by canine distemper virus (CDV). It may affect the respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurologic systems in the body. It is generally transmitted through contact with mucous and watery secretions discharged from the eyes and noses of infected dogs. However, it can also be transmitted by contact with urine and other bodily fluids of infected dogs, so your dog may become infected without coming into contact with an infected dog. Air currents and inanimate objects can also carry the virus.

Distemper was a common infection in dogs many years ago, but the incidence has been significantly decreased through widespread vaccination of dogs. Canine distemper is now most commonly seen in young, unvaccinated or immune-compromised dogs. More than 50 percent of dogs that contract the disease die from it. Even if a dog doesn't die, canine distemper can cause irreparable damage to the nervous system, leaving the dog with partial or total paralysis or seizures.

Canine distemper can strike any dog of any breed or any sex, although it is most common in young dogs.

What To Watch For

While some affected individuals have only a few mild clinical signs, others may exhibit more severe signs. The first noticeable signs might be discharge from the eyes and nose, mild cough, and mild lethargy. Other common signs are:

  • Depression, malaise
  • Anorexia, dehydration
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Lack of coordination
  • Involuntary muscle tremors or tics
  • Paralysis or weakness
  • Blindness
  • Hardening of the footpads
  • Discoloration and pitting of the teeth of growing dogs

    Diagnosis

    Diagnosis is often difficult, since there is no one reliable test for the disease. Diagnosis is usually suspected from the history and clinical signs. Your veterinarian may also recommend the following tests:

  • A complete blood count (CBC), biochemical profile, and urinalysis
  • X-rays of the chest and abdomen
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) testing if neurologic signs are present
  • Examination of buffy coat smears (the layer of white blood cells formed when blood is spun down) and/or conjunctival scrapings from under the eyelid for distemper viral particles)
  • Measurement of distemper antibody titers in blood or the cerebrospinal fluid

    Treatment

    There is no treatment available that kills the virus once it infects the dog. The disease is often progressive despite therapy. Therapy is supportive and aims to strengthen and nourish the body, allowing the dog time to fight off the infection themselves. Dogs with distemper may need to be hospitalized and must be kept in isolation, so as not to infect other dogs. Therapy usually includes:

  • Intravenous fluid and electrolyte therapy, and in some cases, parenteral (intravenous) nutrition for patients who are severely ill.
  • Antibiotic therapy for secondary bacterial infections
  • Symptomatic therapy for respiratory, gastrointestinal, and/or neurologic signs

    Home Care and Prevention

    At home, administer all medications, and return for follow-up examinations as directed by your veterinarian.

    It is important to disinfect contaminated areas by cleaning food and water bowls and other contaminated items with a mixture of one cup of chlorine bleach to a gallon of water.

    Fortunately, canine distemper is preventable. Puppies should receive a series of vaccinations beginning when they are six to eight weeks old and repeated at three to four week intervals until a high state of immunity is achieved, usually around 16 to 20 weeks of age. Vaccines are then usually repeated on annual basis for several more years to maintain the dog's immunity to the virus.

    Until your puppy is vaccinated, keep him away from areas where he may be exposed to the virus, like parks or kennels. Keep him away from other dogs that may not have been vaccinated.

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