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208 Breeds, 422 Health Conditions  |  Find a Vet

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Distemper View In Cats

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Condition Overview

Distemper is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus similar to the one that causes measles in people. Worldwide, it is the leading cause of infectious disease deaths in dogs, although in the United States it occurs only sporadically. All unvaccinated dogs are at high risk of infection.

Symptoms

Half of the dogs who become infected with canine distemper virus show mild signs of the illness or no signs at all. The overall health of the dog has a lot to do with how ill he becomes. The disease is most severe in dogs who are poorly nourished and ill-kept.

First Stage is characterized by a fever spike of up to 103 - 105 degrees F (39.4 - 40.5 degrees C). A second fever spike is accompanied by loss of apepetite, listlessness, and a watery discharge from the eyes and nose. These symptoms may be mistaken for a cold.

Within a few days, the eye and nasal discharge becomes thick, yellow, and sticky. The dog develops a pronounced dry cough. Pus blisters may appear on the abdomen. Vomiting and diarrhea are frequent and may cause severe dehydration.

During the next 1-2 weeks, it is common for the dog to seem to be getting better but then relapses. This often coincides with the end of the course of antibiotics and the development of gastrointestinal and respiratory complications due to the secondary bacterial invasion.

Second Stage occurs 2-3 weeks after the onset of the disease. Many dogs develop signs of brain involvement (encephalitis), characterised by brief attacks of slobbering, head shaking, and chewing movements of the jaws (as if the dog were chewing something). Epileptic-like seizures may occur, in which the dog runs in circles, falls over, and kicks all four feet wildly. After the convulsive episode the dog appears to be confused, shies away from his owner, wanders about aimlessly, and appears to be blind.

Another indication of brain involvement is distemper myoclonus a condition characterized by rythmic contractions of muscle groups at up to 60 contractions per minute. The jerking can affect all parts of the body, but is most common in the head. Myoclonus is first seen when the dog is resting or sleeping. Later it occurs both day and night. Pain accompanies myoclonus, and the dog whines and cries. If the dog recovers, the jerking continues indefinitely, but becomes less severe with time.

The first signs of distemper appear 6-9 days after exposure, and in mild cases, may go unnoticed.

Causes

Infected animals shed canine distemper virus in all the body secretions. Inhaling the virus is the primary source of exposure. Distemper is usually transmitted through contact with mucous and watery secretions discharged from the eyes and noses of infected dogs as well and through contact with their urine and fecal matter. The virus may also be carried on inanimate objects such as shoes.

A healthy dog can contract distemper without ever coming into contact with an infected animal. The highest incidence of the disease occurs in unvaccinated puppies 6-12 weeks of age, at which time maternal antibodies fall below protective levels.

Diagnosis

Lab tests such as blood chemistry and blood cell counts aren't of much value in pinning down distemper. The vet may need to run more sophisticated tests to determine whether the virus is present.

In cases with brain involvement in which the diagnosis is uncertain, a spinal tap and analysis of cerebrospinal fluid ma be of assistance.

Treatment

Distemper must be treated by a veterinarian. Antibiotics are used to prevent secondary bacterial infections, even though they have no effect on the distemper virus. Supportive treatment includes intravenous fluids to correct dehydration, medications to prevent vomiting and diarrhea, and anticonvulsants and sedatives to control seizures.

The outcome depends on how quickly you seek professional help, the virulence of the distemper strain, the age of the dog, whether he has been vaccinated, and his ability to mount a rapid and effective immune response to the virus.

Prevention

Vaccination against canine distemper is almost 100% protective. All puppies should be vaccinated by 8 weeks of age. Brood females should be given DHPP (distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, and parainfluenza) booster shot 2-4 weeks before breeding. This ensures that high antibody levels will be present in the colostrum. Some vets believe this additional vaccine booster is not necessary.

Support

You must contact your vet immediately if your dog has not been vaccinated against Distemper and is displaying any symptoms listed above.

Show Sources & Contributors +

Sources

The Howell Book Of Dogs

Publisher: Wiley Publishing Inc, 2007

Website: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/

Author: Liz Palika

Dog Bible

Publisher: BowTie Press, 2005

Website: http://www.bowtiepress.com/bowtie/

Authors: Kristin Meuh-Roe, Jarelle S. Stein

Dog Owners Home Veterinary Handbook

Publisher: Wiley Publishing, 2007

Website: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/

Authors: Debra M. Eldredge, Liisa D. Carlson, Delbert G. Carlson, James M. Giffen MD

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Dogs, Dog Breeds and Dog Care

Publisher: Anness Publishing Limited, 1999

Website: http://www.southwaterbooks.com/

Authors: Dr. Peter Larkin, Mike Stockman

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