If canine distemper doesn't kill a dog, its aftermath causes continuous problems for the affected animal. All of this pain and trauma is easily avoided with a canine distemper vaccine and subsequent boosters, part of the canine core vaccine protocol. Dogs with this highly contagious disease can spread the virus for weeks after exposure -- surviving dogs might spread it for the rest of their lives.
Along with rabies and parvovirus, canine distemper is among the worst diseases afflicting canines. It's frequently fatal, especially in puppies and dogs with compromised immune systems. The virus attacks the entire dog, including his lymphatic, respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems. Feline distemper results from a different virus, but the canine distemper virus can affect any ferrets living in the household with an infected dog. In people, the virus is most closely related to the measles virus.
Within a week after exposure to the virus, canines start running a fever. An infected dog stops eating and appears lethargic. As the virus spreads within his body, he experiences nasal and eye discharge, sneezing, diarrhea and vomiting. Some dogs might lose vision. There is no real treatment for the disease, just supportive care in a veterinary hospital. This care includes intravenous fluids and nutrition, along with antibiotics if pneumonia develops.
Signs of neurological issues related to the canine distemper virus might appear within a few weeks of the initial illness, or many months later. Not all dogs develop neurological problems. Signs of distemper-related neurological issues include head tilting, constant circling, seizures, muscle twitching and tremors, paralysis, frequent chewing motions -- the "chewing gum fit" -- and excessive salivation. While your vet can prescribe medication for these disorders, treatment often doesn't work. For dogs with severe neurological problems, euthanization is probably the kindest option.
Long Term Effects
Long after the initial infection, canine distemper can plague your dog. Many canine distemper survivors suffer from enamel hypoplasia, or pitting or loss of tooth enamel. This eventually leads to tooth decay and tooth loss. Other dogs develop hyperkeratosis, or abnormal, hard skin growths on the footpads and nose. This condition requires regular trimming of the growths, along with daily application of veterinary-approved skin softeners. As distemper survivors age, they might show symptoms of "old dog encephalitis," an inflammation of the brain similar to the neurological phase of the disease, but occurring years later.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.