What causes canine distemper?
Canine distemper virus is caused by a paramyxovirus, one of a group of RNA viruses usually transmitted by airborne droplets. These tiny droplets from an infected dog or animal’s sneeze/cough carry the virus through the air, where another host inhales or ingests it and carries on the cycle of infection and transmission.
All dogs are at risk, but puppies and young dogs who are not yet vaccinated are the most susceptible, and if treatment and/or medical support is not administered quickly enough, the virus can prove to be fatal. Those dogs who survive the harsher effects of the virus commonly live with lasting brain and nerve damage or suffer from seizures and other neurological disorders.
Canine distemper virus is closely related to the measles virus in humans and the rinderpest virus, which affects cattle. Despite its name, wildlife such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and even pet ferrets are known to suffer from and carry CDV, which has prompted the question of whether it should be renamed the carnivore distemper virus.
How is canine distemper transmitted?
Part of the inherent danger of canine distemper virus is the speed and ease at which it can spread. CDV is transmitted in a few ways:
Airborne transmission. Canine distemper is primarily spread through the air when an infected dog or other animal coughs or sneezes, releasing virus-carrying droplets into the air. Although it has been described as not very durable once it leaves its host, the virus can still survive for hours leaving it viable on tiny dust particles and dander, traveling from host to host. Once ingested or inhaled, the virus begins to wreak havoc within the upper respiratory tract and then continue, if untreated, to the gastrointestinal and nervous systems.
Sharing of contaminated objects. Water and food bowls as well as toys, blankets, and bedding can spread the virus from dog to dog. Just like children sharing toys and communal areas at school, dogs pick up the virus from other surfaces and items that infected dogs or animals have touched or used.
Direct contact with infected dogs or other animals. If a dog ingests or inhales the infected saliva, mucus, urine, or blood of an infected dog or animal, such as a raccoon or skunk, the virus can, and probably will, take hold. Boarding facilities, daycares, dog parks, urban neighborhoods, and other areas where numerous animals are kept or frequent are at risk for contamination and spreading of CDV.
Mother to offspring. Pregnant mothers are able to spread the virus to their unborn puppies through the placenta; mothers should always be vaccinated before conception and up-to-date on all other vaccines.
Distemper can continue to be shed by an infected animal for several weeks after inception. Dogs suspected of having CDV should be isolated until completely recovered.
What are the symptoms of canine distemper?
Symptoms begin to manifest as red and watery eyes, drainage from the nose, and a high fever. Dogs will often then become lethargic, depressed, lose their appetite, and suffer from vomiting and diarrhea, as well as coughing and sneezing.
Prompt veterinarian intervention is required, as CDV can be fatal, if left untreated. Even those dogs who survive the more severe symptoms, lasting neurological issues can occur later in life, such as seizures, tremors, or nerve damage.
How can canine distemper be prevented?
The best prevention method for CDV is proper vaccination. Pet care facilities should require proof of vaccination for this and other infectious diseases or illnesses. Pet parents should stay up to date on vaccines and be sure to ask the pet care facility you choose which vaccinations they require. Also ask about air and surface sanitation protocols used to help stop or control the spread of CDV and other illnesses.
For more information and details for both pet care facilities and pet parents on how best to prevent the spread of infectious disease, visit our kennel cough page.
How is canine distemper treated?
The following is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment for your pet. Consult your veterinarian for questions and information regarding your pet’s health.
There is no cure for CDV. Because canine distemper is a virus, antibiotics are ineffective. While they will help prevent and/or treat any secondary infections (such as pneumonia, which is common), antibiotics cannot eliminate or shorten the length of the virus. Therefore, treatment options consist mainly of supportive care. A vet visit is required as soon as symptoms start to show for proper diagnosis and testing. IV fluids may be given to prevent dehydration and antibiotics to help support the immune system.
Recovering from CDV is aided with plenty of rest and fresh water along with a bland diet and regular cleaning of the eyes and nose. Body temperature and overall progression of symptoms should be closely monitored. How long canine distemper virus lasts and total recovery time depends on the severity of the infection as well as the age and overall health of the infected dog. Very young puppies and elderly dogs with weakened immune systems have the hardest time with this virus and are the most at risk.