Canine distemper vaccines are a mainstay of early puppy care. The distemper virus is potentially lethal, while the vaccine very seldom has any ill side effects. There is currently no treatment for this disease, and even dogs that recover may have long-lasting neurological side effects. For dogs who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons, there are a few preventative options that may offer some protection.
Risks of Distemper
Young puppies and adolescent dogs are most vulnerable to this disease. The first symptoms usually include sneezing, coughing and discharge from the eyes and nose. Moderate cases may include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite or pneumonia. In its later stages distemper may cause inflammation, lesions, vision problems or blindness, muscle spasms, seizure, paralysis, loss of mental function and death due to swelling of the brains, spinal cord and optic nerve. There is no treatment for distemper, although your vet may offer IV fluids to prevent dehydration and antibiotics to prevent other infections while your dog fights the disease. Dogs who recover may have seizures, paralysis or lasting brain damage either immediately or years after recovery.
In especially young puppies, antibodies from the mother may interfere with the distemper vaccine. In order to ensure immunity, puppies are generally given their first distemper shot at six weeks, then a booster every two to four weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age. Research suggests the vaccine may offer protection for more than three years, but most vets recommend a booster shot once a year to ensure your dog is safe, depending on local risk factors.
Dogs Who Shouldn't Be Vaccinated
The distemper vaccine uses a modified live virus to encourage antibody development, making it potentially dangerous to certain populations of dogs. Puppies younger than six weeks, mothers in the late term of their pregnancy and female dogs nursing young puppies should not be vaccinated. There may also be significant risk to dogs with compromised immune systems, although the risk is generally weighed against the benefits of immunity on a case-by-case basis.
Alternative Preventative Measures
For dogs who can't be immunized, there are a few options for prevention. Vets usually recommend keeping puppies away from any dogs that don't live in the house until they can have their first round of shots. Distemper is not hearty outside of the body, and surfaces may be disinfected using a 1-to-30 solution of bleach to water. If your dog has recovered from distemper, disinfect the house and wait at least a month before exposing him to other dogs or bringing other dogs into the home. Routine disinfecting, even without an outbreak, will also help prevent the spread of disease, including distemper.
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