Canine Distemper is a highly contagious disease caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV). This serious disease most often affects young, unvaccinated dogs and dogs with compromised immune systems. The disease is fatal in over 50% of cases and death may occur within two weeks to three months.
CDV is transmitted through contact with body fluids of an infected dog or contaminated food and water. The virus may also be carried through the air. The virus will live in the environment for only a few hours at room temperature but can survive several days if the temperature is slightly above freezing. The virus may affect the respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological systems of the dog.
There may be mild signs of infection or the symptoms may be severe. The first sign is watery or mucousy discharge from the eyes and nose accompanied by a mild cough or lethargy. More severe symptoms include depression, refusal to eat, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, seizures, weakness, involuntary muscle tics or tremors and paralysis.
There are no reliable tests for diagnosis of canine distemper. Several other viral, bacterial and protozoal infections as well as toxin poisoning mimic distemper symptoms. The vet will rely on clinical signs and the dogís history as well as characteristic changes associated with the disease, such as pitting and discoloration of the tooth enamel, thickened and hardened foot pads and inflammatory changes in the retina to determine a diagnosis of distemper. Lab tests of the blood and urine may be performed to confirm the diagnosis.
There is no treatment that kills the CDV and prognosis is not good. Supportive therapy involving intravenous fluids and nutrition, antibiotics to treat secondary infections, and medicines to relieve GI symptoms will be in order. The sick dog may require hospitalization but milder cases may only need good nursing care at home. At home the dogís food and water bowls and any contaminated areas should be cleaned with a mixture of one cup of bleach to one gallon of water. The dog should be kept warm and isolated from other dogs.
Canine distemper is preventable. At birth puppies receive immunity from their motherís milk. The protection gradually decreases and disappears at nine to twelve weeks of age. Puppies should receive a series of vaccines beginning at six to eight weeks old. The immunity given by the mother may interfere with the response to the vaccine and even puppies who have begun vaccination series may get distemper. Young puppies should be kept away from kennels, parks, obedience classes and other places dogs congregate. Adult dogs should have their vaccinations kept up-to-date. Dogs who recover from canine distemper may be left with partial or total paralysis, seizures, or other irreparable damage to the nervous system. Recovered dogs will have immunity to further infection by the virus and will not be carriers. By J. E. Davidson
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