What is distemper?
Distemper is a highly infectious, highly fatal viral disease. It is transmitted by airborne droplets (e.g. cough) from an infected animal. It is very common among young animals, especially those housed in groups. The fatality rate among affected dogs is about 50%.
What does distemper do?
Distemper causes a rapidly spreading infection. It starts in the nose, throat and lungs, and spreads to the stomach and intestines, and then to the nerves and the brain. Any or all of these organs can become affected, and cause coughing, sneezing, vomiting, diarrhoea, depression, seizures, and nasal and ocular discharges. Even years after the dog has recovered, brain injury from the distemper infection can cause seizures, paralysis, muscle tremors and incoordination.
How do we treat distemper?
Because distemper is a virus, there is no specific treatment. Distemper invades the cells of the immune system, and so it allows other serious bacterial infections to emerge. These cause life threatening infections, and severely compromise the dog’s immune response against the virus. This is prevented by a course of broad spectrum, highly effective antibiotics. The dog’s immune response is aided by a course of injections of distemper-active immunoglobulins, which help the body recognise and eliminate the virus. Because distemper affects so many organs, symptomatic treatment is needed to help the dog to eat, to breathe freely and to eliminate the discharge from the airways. This symptomatic treatment makes the dog more comfortable and helps eliminate the virus. Your puppy should be encouraged to eat, and force fed if necessary. All discharge from the nose and eyes should be cleaned regularly with warm water.
Is my dog going to get better?
Distemper has a fatality rate of about 50%. The survival rate is influenced by the age and condition of the animal, and the treatment offered. Severe cases need hospitalisation and intravenous fluids. Whether or not your dog survives depends on how its immune system responds to the virus. If the immune response is weak, death occurs 2-4 weeks after infection, if the immune system is strong the virus is eliminated within 1-2 weeks. After the dog seems better, there is a 10-20% chance of developing neurological signs up to 3 months after infection. Some dogs show no signs of even having distemper and still develop neurological signs. These signs include increased sensitivity to touch, incoordination, depression, seizures and sometimes temporary or permanent blindness.
How do i prevent distemper?
1. The most important factor is vaccinations. Begin vaccinations early (6 weeks old), and make sure your dog has the full course of 3 vaccines. Make sure you vaccinate with a registered veterinarian, and the vaccine batch and date are recorded on a vaccination card.
2. Prevent your dog from being in close contact with other puppies. When your puppy is young it is highly susceptible, and even vaccination does not give 100% protection. If your dog has distemper, it is infectious, and should be isolated from any susceptible dogs.
3. Make sure your puppy is fed the right amount of the right type of food. Make sure it is not allowed to get too cold or too hot, and has fresh water available at all times. These things help keep the immune system of the puppy strong and functional.
4. Take care where you get your puppy from. If there are any animals in the environment that have discharge from the nose or eyes or are coughing, chances are that the environment will be distemper positive.
If you suspect distemper, see your vet quickly. Early treatment will help keep the puppy strong, and prevent early pneumonia or dehydration.