Canine Distemper – Will My Dog Recover?

Canine distemper is a dangerous virus that can quickly spread through a canine population.

Though widespread vaccinations have decreased the prevalence of this disease, it still lingers in settings that see a high volume of dogs.

With canine distemper having a mortality rate of up to 50%, it’s essential for dog owners to be aware of the signs of this deadly infection.

In this article we will get into the details of distemper in our canine friends, and help you better understand how you can protect your dog.

Canine Distemper

What Is Distemper In Dogs?

Canine distemper (CDV) is a contagious viral illness that can cause devastating impact to our furry friends.

This viral disease incites multisystem complications, targeting the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems.

Due to impacting so many systems throughout the body, distemper can be fatal.

Distemper in dogs is considered an incurable disease, with relief only being found when offering symptomatic care.

This is known to be a lethal disease in the veterinary community, which is why the distemper vaccine is considered a core vaccine.

How Do Dogs Spread Distemper?

Canine distemper is spread from dog to dog by coming in direct contact with an infected dog, as well as contaminated surfaces.

Most dogs become infected when inhaling droplets from a dog that is sneezing and coughing, as this allows the virus to travel a short distance to its new victim.

Not only can they inhale the droplets directly, but they can be exposed to the virus by sharing items such as water bowls and bedding.

In addition to exposure in their environment, puppies can acquire the disease from their mother as well.

The virus can be passed to the puppies while they are in the placenta, as well as being in direct contact with their mother’s bodily secretions from the moment they are born.

Distemper can also infect certain types of wildlife, with raccoons being high on the list of frequently infected.

An increase in raccoons in a population has led to a rise in canine distemper cases in the past, proving the possibility of transmission from wildlife.

When Will Dogs Show Symptoms Of Distemper After Exposure?

The incubation period of canine distemper can vary based on the dog’s immune response, but most will display symptoms within 7-28 days of exposure.

Distemper symptoms have been known to develop up to 6 weeks after the initial infection, so this is always something to keep in mind if your dog was previously exposed.

Symptoms Of Distemper In Dogs

As we mentioned above, canine distemper can impact multiple systems throughout the body.

Because of this, the symptoms can range in severity from dog to dog.

To help you better educate yourself on the ways that distemper can manifest in dogs, let’s break down the symptoms based on the body system it reaches.

Initial Symptoms Of CDV

  • Fever
  • Anorexia
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Lethargy
  • Nasal discharge

Respiratory Symptoms Of CDV

  • Fever
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Anorexia
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Thick nasal discharge
  • Labored breathing

Gastrointestinal Symptoms Of CDV

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Central Nervous System Symptoms Of CDV

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Wobbly gait
  • Muscle twitching
  • Sensitivity to external stimulus, very reactive
  • Seizures
  • Vocalizations
  • Paralysis
  • Collapse
  • Hardening of the nose and paw pads

Once a dog has been exposed to and makes it through the onset of their symptoms, the virus can hide out in the nervous system and manifest at a later time.

This means that some dogs will appear to have survived their distemper infection, only to develop severe neurological symptoms months down the line.

If your dog has recently recovered from distemper, you will need to be on the lookout for these symptoms until your veterinarian says otherwise.

Are Some Dogs More At Risk Of Catching Distemper?

Unfortunately for certain canine friends, there are some dogs that are more susceptible to catching distemper virus than others.

The most at risk age range seems to be puppies between 3-6 months of age, and their illness appears to be more aggressive.

This is likely due to the fact that their maternal antibodies have just begun to fade, making them more susceptible to illnesses in the world around them.

If a puppy is not fully vaccinated within this time frame, they can fall victim to an array of contagious diseases.

Despite what many pet owners believe, puppies are not the only ones that can catch canine distemper.

Unvaccinated dogs of any age can fall ill if they are exposed, though their risk does decrease as they get older.

Dogs up to 7 years of age have been diagnosed with CDV, so keeping your pup up to date on vaccines throughout their lives is essential in maintaining their overall health.

Is Canine Distemper Deadly?

Canine distemper virus is a deadly disease with a 50% mortality rate.

It is the second most deadly viral illness in our canine friends, with rabies ranking in the first spot.

There is no cure for distemper, only aggressive symptomatic care until their symptoms resolve.

In many cases, some dogs will not survive even with medical intervention.

Not only is the virus itself considered potentially fatal, but the secondary infections that develop can be as well.

Distemper can cause bacterial infections in the lungs and spinal cord, causing significant illness in an already compromised pup.

Diagnosing Distemper In Dogs

Unlike other viral diseases that can be tested for in house, canine distemper does not have a fast and effective testing method.

It was once quite challenging to obtain a concrete distemper diagnosis, but it is now possible with laboratory testing.

The most common way to diagnose distemper in dogs is through PCR testing at a lab.

By sending out appropriate samples, the lab can search for the presence of viral DNA that is specific to CDV.

These tests can also rule out vaccination from actual exposure, as this can be challenging with other testing methods.

If needed, the spinal fluid in a symptomatic dog can be tested for the presence of CDV as well.

This is typically only performed in dogs with CDV that manifests at a later date, allowing the vet to rule out other potential causes of their neurological symptoms.

Treatment For Distemper In Dogs

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment method when it comes to managing canine distemper.

Like many other viral illnesses, treatment is geared toward decreasing the severity of the symptoms that are present.

Though there is no established cure, hospitalization with intensive nursing care is the most effective way to help a dog survive.

The standard treatment plan for a dog with distemper includes IV fluids, antibiotics to control secondary infections, GI medications to manage any diarrhea or vomiting, oxygen therapy for any secondary pneumonia, and anti-seizure medications if neurological symptoms are present.

Dogs with distemper often die as a result of the secondary infections that develop, as well as the neurological symptoms that can manifest in severe cases.

Ideal treatment involves preventing as many secondary infections as possible, as well as nursing the pup through their current struggles.

Long Term Effects Of Distemper In Dogs

Even when a dog survives canine distemper, many of them will struggle with long term effects of the disease.

These effects often range in severity based on the form of distemper they developed, with those with central nervous system CDV having the most significant long term complications.

For example, I previously worked with a veterinarian that rescued a 4-month-old puppy with canine distemper virus.

She nursed her through the aggressive illness, but the dog still has neurological symptoms to this day.

The now 6-year-old dog still has a mild twitch that persists throughout the day, and will still experience the occasional seizure.

Some of the most common long term effects of distemper in dogs include hardening of the nose, hardening of the paw pads, scarring of the lungs, seizures, muscle tremors, and dry eye.

Will My Dog Survive Distemper?

It is impossible to know whether or not your dog will survive distemper, but offering them aggressive medical care is the best way to give them a chance at survival.

Having them seen at the first sign of illness is essential in these cases, as well as following any treatment plan your veterinarian suggests.

Your pup will not survive this disease without a fight, so it is up to you and your veterinary team to determine the best plan of action for your situation.

Can You Prevent Distemper In Dogs?

Prevention is key when discussing canine distemper and how it can impact the canine population.

Distemper is included in the combination core vaccines that your veterinarian suggests each year, which is why the prevalence of this disease has decreased in developed regions.

The canine distemper vaccine should be offered to a puppy in a series of three initial vaccines, one yearly vaccine, and then once every three years.

It’s important to avoid any gaps in your vaccination schedule, as any drop in immunity can put your dog at risk when coming in contact with the virus.

Some additional tips in preventing canine distemper in your dog include:

  • Avoiding any dogs with respiratory symptoms
  • Do not allow your dog to socialize with unvaccinated dogs
  • Use caution in areas that frequent dogs such as dog parks, doggy daycare, animal clinics, and pet stores
  • Try to avoid public water stations for dogs

Even when dogs survive this deadly illness, they are often left with life-altering complications for the rest of their days.

Preventing distemper virus is essential in offering your dog a healthy and happy future.

Final Thoughts

Canine distemper is a devastating illness that takes the lives of so many furry friends.

Vaccinating your dog against this disease is essential in not only protecting your dog going forward, but in preventing the spread of this aggressive illness to other pups.

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