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Health eTips is produced by the staff of the St. Charles County Department of Public Health. The department consists of three divisions - Environmental Health and Protection, Health Services and Humane Services - that provide a wide range of services focused on enhancing the well-being of this community.

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Nov 10

Is My Dog at Risk for Distemper?

Posted on November 10, 2016 at 11:47 AM by Doug Bolnick


Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard several news reports about a scary, and highly infectious, disease that can occur in dogs. Canine distemper is caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs, as well as several species of wild animals (including raccoons, foxes, coyotes and skunks that are common in our area). Although, it does not cause illness in humans, canine distemper is often fatal for dogs or causes permanent nervous system damage.

How Does Distemper Spread?
Canine distemper is highly contagious and is spread through direct contact. It is usually dispersed through the air when an infected dog or wild animal sneezes or coughs. It can also be shared through water and food bowls or other common equipment. Mother dogs may also pass the virus to her unvaccinated puppies.

What are the Symptoms?
Canine distemper is typically found in puppies, but it can affect dogs of all ages if they do not receive regular vaccinations. The disease grows quickly after infection, with a watery, pus-like discharge from the eyes serving as an initial symptom. Additional symptoms include a fever, coughing, sneezing, general fatigue or lethargy and decreased appetite. When the virus attacks the nervous system, symptoms such as tremors or tics, convulsions, a lack of balance or a snapping of the jaws will develop. The virus can also lead to thickened and hardened foot pads, which is a common visual diagnosis.
Photo of a female veterinarian giving a shot to a small dog, with its owners helping hold the animal
How Can We Prevent the Disease?
All dogs are at risk for canine distemper, but routine vaccination helps build immunity against the virus. To build initial immunity, puppies and dogs with unknown vaccination histories should be given a series of vaccinations. After this initial period, the dog should be given routine booster vaccinations to maintain protection. Additionally, owners should use caution when socializing their animals with other dogs or in areas where they could contact wild animals.

What is the Treatment?
There is no cure for animals affected with distemper. Treatment plans are therefore forms of supportive care and methods to prevent secondary infections. To combat dehydration, the dog should be given fluids. Additionally, to prevent the spread to other animals, affected dogs must be isolated from others.

If you are unsure of your pet’s vaccination record, please speak with your veterinarian.