Illinois Dog Owners Urged to Vaccinate for Distemper

Numerous cases of canine distemper have been reported this spring in Illinois, leading the Illinois State Veterinary Association (ISVMA) to urge dog owners to be certain their animals have been vaccinated.

What Is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a highly contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and often, the nervous systems of puppies and dogs. Distemper is caused by the Morbillivirus which is closely related to the human measles virus. The virus also infects wild foxes, wolves, coyotes, raccoons, skunks and ferrets.

All dogs are at risk but puppies younger than four months old and dogs that have not been vaccinated against canine distemper are at increased risk of acquiring the disease. Canine distemper virus in the dog can affect a wide range of organs including the skin, brain, eyes, intestinal and respiratory tracts.

How Is Canine Distemper Spread?

Puppies and dogs usually become infected through airborne exposure to the virus contained in respiratory secretions of an infected dog or wild animal. Outbreaks of distemper tend to be sporadic. Because canine distemper also affects wildlife populations, contact between wild canids and domestic dogs may facilitate spread of the virus.

Symptoms of Canine Distemper

There are many symptoms of Canine Distemper and may include:

Fever that may come and go (103F to 106F)
Loss of appetite
Nasal discharge
Eye inflammation
Neurological Symptoms include:

Muscle twitching
Deterioration of mental abilities
Loss of motor skills
Complete or partial paralysis
Increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as pain or touch
A fever is often the initial symptom but may go unnoticed. Symptoms become more serious and noticeable as the disease progresses. Complications involving the eyes can also occur. Some complications of the eye can be serious enough to damage the optic nerve and cause the dog to go blind.

Encephalomyelitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord is a complication that can develop.

Dogs who have recovered can also suffer chronic symptoms such as hardening of the foot and nose pads. Erosion of the teeth can occur if a puppy contracts the disease before its second teeth have erupted. The virus kills the cells that make tooth enamel.

How is Canine Distemper diagnosed and treated?

Veterinarians diagnose canine distemper on the basis of clinical appearance and laboratory tests. No specific drug is available that will kill the virus in infected dogs.

Treatment consists primarily of efforts to prevent secondary infections; control vomiting, diarrhea, or neurologic symptoms; and combat dehydration through administration of fluids. Ill dogs should be kept warm, receive good nursing care, and be separated from other dogs.

Canine Distemper is fatal in over fifty percent of adult dogs who contract the virus and eighty percent of puppies. Death occurs between 2 weeks and 3 months after infection. The main cause of death is from complications to the central nervous system. Many vets will recommend euthanasia when there are progressive incapacitating neurological symptoms.

Nervous system problems can persist many weeks after the animal has recovered from all other symptoms of the infection. Some dogs appear to recover but may develop chronic or fatal nervous system problems.