Get the Facts on
Distemper in Dogs
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Canine Distemper - what it is and how Dogs get it.
By: Tippy and her furry cousin, Turbo the dog.
Canine Distemper is a multi-systemic disease caused by a
virus that is incurable and often fatal. The virus that
causes Canine Distemper is called CDV. It is also highly
contagious. Canine Distemper affects the central nervous
system, gastrointestinal tract and the respiratory system of
the infected dog.
All dogs and most other canines are vulnerable to Canine
Distemper, and the disease attacks dogs all around the
world. Distemper was once the main cause of death in
puppies. Once vaccination became available worldwide the
incidence of death by Canine Distemper was reduced.
But CDV occurs in more animals that just canines. Instances
of CDV have been found in raccoons, foxes and skunks and is
fairly common among wildlife. The vaccine, first developed
in 1960, reduced the number of instance of canine distemper
dramatically. Now there are only occasional outbreaks of
canine distemper among domestic dog populations.
Most susceptible to canine distemper are puppies three to
six months old that have been weaned. A puppy that has just
been weaned no longer has immunity from the mother dog but
has not yet had immunization shots to cause its body to
develop its own antibodies against canine distemper.
Older dogs that haven't been vaccinated are also highly
susceptible to CDV. Dogs that have contact with wildlife
that may be infected are even more likely to contract the
How is CDV or Canine Distemper contracted?
Dogs that are infected with canine distemper shed the virus
through saliva and bodily secretions. This virus is airborne
and can be transmitted by breathing in infected particles.
Dogs that recover from the virus can continue to shed the
virus for several weeks afterward but once they are fully
recovered they are no longer contagious.
Humans can contract an asymptomatic infection of CDV and
infect other animals. However, if you have been immunized
against measles, a related virus, then you are protected
from getting CDV.
Once an animal contracts the disease through inhaling
macrophages (a cell that carries disease organisms) the
virus travels to the lymph nodes where it starts
replicating. The virus then spreads quickly from the
infected lymph node to all other lymphoid organs with a few
In one week the virus spreads to the blood. From there is
spreads to the lining of the lungs, the intestinal tract,
the bladder lining and the central nervous system.
Caring for and Coping with your Dog that has Canine Distemper
Most often if your dog contracts Canine Distemper you will
not know until it is already too late. It may seem that your
dog has a slight cold with a fever that goes away only to
come back within the next few days and then the symptoms get
worse. The disease itself runs its course and your friend
may be gone from your side within a few weeks.
This disease is horrible to witness and a dog with Canine
Distemper suffers through progressively worse symptoms.
There is no cure for the disease and whether or not your dog
recovers is up to its own immune system response.
Some dogs get infected and they show no symptoms at all
because they have strong immune systems. Other dogs die
within a few weeks. It is important to note that the
recommendation from most veterinarians for a dog that has
been diagnosed with Canine Distemper is euthanasia, as it
spares the dog suffering and you some grief.
Is there a chance your dog can recover?
No one is going to tell you no. But often what happens after
the disease runs its course is that the complications from
the disease cause permanent neurological problems that cause
death within a few weeks of recovering from the disease.
If your dog manages to survive it may never be the same and
may need medication the rest of its life to be able to
function. Is it kinder to
euthanize your dog once it is
clear your dog will not easily recover?
In the end it is a personal choice. You are your dog's
primary care giver and you must choose whether you want to
give your dog a chance to survive or end its life humanely
so it does not suffer.
Some veterinarians may insist that you euthanize your dog
immediately but this is really alarmist speak. If you have a
single dog household and there is no chance of your dog
coming into contact with other dogs then caring for your dog
until it recovers or dies is a choice you can make.
Your veterinarian can give you medications that can help
your dog with the symptoms associated with this disease in
order to make your dog more comfortable.
Make sure that your dog is getting plenty of fluids and
remember not to be anxious or upset around your dog when it
is sick. Dogs pick up on their masters' feelings and it is
important to love your dog and encourage it during this
time. If you choose to keep your dog at home, make sure it
is kept dry and warm and do everything in your power to
nurse your dog so it has the best chance possible of
Help your Dog Live the Longest Life Possible