Canine distemper is one of the most significant and highly contagious viral diseases of dogs. The virus targets various organ systems all at the same time in an animal’s body adding to its severity. It is caused by a paramyxovirus, a type of virus that causes measles in humans and rinderpest in hoofed-animals such as cattle. Canine distemper affects dogs at any age. Cats, skunks and binturong are some other animals that are also susceptible to the canine distemper virus.
The canine distemper virus spread in many ways. An infected animal can easily shed the virus through exhalation, implying that the virus is transmitted via air. The virus is also shed through other bodily secretions and excretions such as urine and feces. Younger dogs are more vulnerable canine distemper than older dogs because of their under-developed immune systems.
Canine Distemper symptoms may be confused with other diseases due to its universal and wide range of clinical manifestations. Common symptoms are either gastrointestinal (such as vomiting, decrease in appetite and diarrhea) or respiratory in nature (difficulty in breathing). Transient fever or dramatic and sporadic increases in body temperature is a telltale sign of the infection. Behavioral changes include lethargy, weakness and depression. Neurological signs may also be seen such as muscle twitching especially near the mouth and legs. Seizures and paralysis may occur in severe cases. A more unique sign in dogs with canine distemper is the hardening of footpads and nose pad. This is most evident in older dogs. Sudden death is not uncommon with this disease.
Aside from signs and symptoms, laboratory diagnostic examinations such as blood tests are recommended to detect and confirm the disease and its severity. Actual viral isolation and identification is also possible depending on the capacity of a laboratory.
Similar with other viral diseases there is no direct treatment for canine distemper. Moreover, treatment becomes irrelevant provided that preventive measures are performed. Early detection of the disease is also important to increase the chances of recovery. Once a dog has been infected, a dog owner can only offer supportive treatment and hope for the best. Antibiotic therapy may also be prescribed to lessen any detrimental effects of opportunistic secondary bacterial infections. Recovery may be absolute. However, in most cases, despite being provided with the utmost care, lingering debilitating signs do persist throughout the animal’s life such as involuntary muscle twitching.
Canine distemper is rampant in the unvaccinated dog population. Many industrialized countries having implemented great vaccination programs against the disease have successfully controlled the virus from spreading. Vaccination of young dogs begins as early as six weeks of age. Booster shots are administered yearly to ensure and maintain the antibodies against the virus. Basic proper hygiene and sanitation such as the use of standard disinfectants is sufficient to kill the canine distemper virus. Infected animals should also be quarantined from other animals.