Canine distemper is a viral disease that affects may species of animals to include, but not limited to dogs, ferrets, raccoons, bears, and foxes. The persistence of the virus in wildlife and the decision of many dog owners not to vaccinate their pets contribute to the constant threat of the disease spilling over into the domestic dog population. The frequency of distemper outbreaks is uncommon and usually involves animal shelters. Over the past few years, there have been significant outbreaks in big city shelters scattered all over the United States. The disease is more common and more rampant in countries with a lesser socio-economic base than that which occurs in western Europe and the United States and Canada. Importation of animals from some of the third world countries is a threat to our (United States) domestic dogs. Without enlarging on the details, there has been a distemper outbreak cluster in Carter County within the last year.
The RNA virus is an epitheliotrophic virus. This means that it can and will affect any of the epithelium in or on the body and because the brain is embryologically derived from the ectodermal tissues, the virus can and will also affect the central nervous system. The most common signs of the disease are respiratory (coughing, dyspnea, pneumonia, purulent nasal and ocular discharge) and gastrointestinal (vomiting and diarrhea). However, hyperkeratosis (thickening) of the nose and the pads of the feet, various types of seizures, “chewing fits”, corneal damage, and damage to the dental enamel also occur.
Vaccination is relatively inexpensive, very safe, and extremely effective. Several different (but similar) vaccination programs are championed by different veterinarians but they all include multiple vaccinations of very young puppies. Depending upon whether or not the neonatal puppy ever nursed its dam, vaccination may be recommended to begin at two weeks of age. However, under normal circumstances vaccination begins at six weeks of age and continues through twelve weeks of age with a total of three vaccinations having been given during that time.
Vaccines can be obtained from many sources and given by any person capable of mixing the lypholized vaccine and the diluent and of injecting a needle into the skin. However, the production of successful and protective immunity in the patient depends upon more factors than simply buying the vaccine and injecting it into the dog. Too many times the vaccine is no good when it is purchased because of the failure of proper temperature control from the time of manufacture of the vaccine through all of the shipping and storage changes the bottle of vaccine incurs prior to its purchase. If the vaccine has gotten warm or hot at any single point in time between production and administration, its effectiveness has been significantly reduced or completely negated – even if it has been refrigerated after the elevated temperature. Also, many pet owners administer the purchased vaccine to patients of questionable health – sick with some other disease such as parasitic malnutrition, dehydration, other virus or bacterial diseases, etc.
Treatment of canine distemper is determined by the clinical signs presented by any single case or cluster of cases. If respiratory signs are the predominant clinical presentation, treatment is directed toward the control of pneumonia, nasal exudates, coughing, etc. Similarly, treatment is symptomatic toward gastrointestinal signs if vomiting and diarrhea are the primary clinical signs. In my forty-three (and counting) years of practicing veterinary medicine, my experience is that most dogs with canine distemper do not survive despite intensive treatment and those that do survive seldom return to 100% clinically normal. As luck would have it, absolute proof of the diagnosis of canine distemper is not as simple and straight forward as it seems it would be. There are multiple types of testing that can be done that “tend to suggest” or “tend to confirm” a diagnosis of canine distemper; but, unfortunately, post mortem histopathology is the most conclusive diagnosis. If properly researched, many “survivors” of distemper are individuals that never had a confirmed or laboratory supported diagnosis of distemper in the first place. In other words, it is doubtful that the patient had canine distemper.
Obviously the best practice to avoid canine distemper involves the vaccination of very young puppies with a properly controlled vaccine administered by knowledgeable individuals.
The feline disease that is commonly called “feline distemper” is not the same virus as the canine distemper. “Feline distemper” is a commonly used misnomer for the feline disease panleukopenia.