Distemper is a viral disease that affects both wild and domestic carnivorous animals. Canine distemper affects foxes, coyotes, wolves and domesticated dogs. Feline distemper, also known as panleukopenia, affects lynxes, bobcats and domesticated cats. Although both forms of distemper are highly contagious and life-threatening, canine distemper and feline distemper are very different species-specific viral diseases.
Canine distemper belongs to the paramyxovirus group, the same group to which the human measles virus belongs. The illness is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids -- including saliva, urine, blood and coughed or sneezed droplets -- from an infected animal. Once the virus enters the lymphatic tissues and moves into the bloodstream, it spreads to the surfaces of respiratory and gastrointestinal organs. The first symptoms include fever, nasal and ocular discharge, coughing, sneezing, a decrease in appetite and development of pneumonia. Vomiting and diarrhea set in as the virus affects the gastrointestinal system. The canine distemper virus also attacks the central nervous system, resulting in tremors, limb weakness, imbalance, disorientation and seizure activity.
To avoid confusion, feline distemper is usually called panleukopenia, which is the term used to describe a white blood cell deficiency. Panleukopenia is caused by the feline parvovirus and is contracted by ingestion of feces, blood, urine or saliva from an infected animal. Cats ingest such contaminants while grooming. Ingesting a flea that has fed off of an infected animal can also transmit the virus. Once ingested, the virus attacks the cat’s rapidly dividing white blood cells, which are found in bone marrow, the gastrointestinal tract and developing fetuses. The protective lining of the gastrointestinal tract is destroyed, and symptoms of severe diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration and a lack of appetite result. The bone marrow, which produces blood cells, is also destroyed, resulting in anemia. The lack of white blood cells compromises the cat’s immune system, resulting in secondary bacterial infections, including septicemia.
If your dog has canine distemper, he cannot pass the illness to his feline housemate. Canine distemper does not pose a health threat to a dog's human family members, either. Ferrets, raccoons, minks, skunks, badgers, otters, weasels and wolverines can contract and transmit the canine distemper virus. If your cat has been diagnosed with the feline distemper virus, she cannot pass the disease to the family dog. The feline parvovirus that causes panleukopenia is species-specific and does not cause the canine parvovirus that afflicts dogs. Feline distemper does not affect humans. Raccoons, skunks, minks and otters can contract and transmit the feline distemper virus.
The commonalities of canine distemper and feline distemper are their high levels of contagion and their high mortality rates. Only some patients are saved through hospitalization and aggressive treatment. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent distemper viruses from striking your dogs and cats. Canine and feline core vaccines offer protection against distemper. The vaccines are generally administered in series to puppies and kittens. Be sure to complete the series of injections and follow your veterinarian’s recommended vaccination schedule.