Canine Distemper

Most of us have heard of distemper infection in dogs and know that it can be bad news. One of the fundamental vaccines recommended for every dog is the “distemper-parvo” shot, and sometimes this is where most distemper discussions end. However, it’s important to review why we vaccinate against this virus so routinely, in hopes that you never have to become more familiar with the disease in your own pet.

Canine distemper is a virus related to human measles. Virus transmission involves dog to dog contact through infected bodily fluids such as those from the respiratory tract. This virus can live for years when it is protected from light (even in freezing temperatures!). The good news though is that routine disinfection can easily kill the virus in kennel settings.

Symptoms of canine distemper usually begin with respiratory signs such as eye and nose discharge, coughing and fever. Soon after, other symptoms can develop including vomiting, diarrhea, callusing of the nose and foot pads and even seizure activity. Signs can progress to death or may become non progressive and permanent. Recovery is possible though in some cases! Puppies and dogs with weakened immune systems are most likely to succumb to the disease.

Most cases diagnosed in the U.S. involve puppies. The milk suckled in the first day of life will provide puppies a temporary immunity from their mother. This immunity wanes by 16 weeks of life, leaving the puppy vulnerable to this disease if vaccines have not been administered for further protection. In countries where vaccination is not as common, distemper can attack dogs of any age.

Effective distemper vaccination has been available since the 1950s. Prior to widespread vaccination, distemper was the Achilles heel of the canine community, wiping out large populations of pet and wild dogs. Fortunately for today, distemper is a rare disease except in the shelter, rescue, and pet store world.

The “distemper shot” is the basic, core immunization for dogs. It’s usually combined with vaccine for canine parvovirus as well for parainfluenza, adenovirus, sometimes leptospirosis and occasionally coronavirus. Puppies are vaccinated beginning at 6 to 8 weeks of age and then every 2 to 4 weeks thereafter until 16 weeks of age (remember mom’s immunity will wane at some point during this period). The next vaccine is one year later. After that, subsequent vaccination boosters can be administered every 1 to 3 years or based on antibody levels.

If you’re interested in knowing more about canine distemper, or vaccinations and/or antibody titers, do not hesitate to reach out to your local veterinary office. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to canine distemper!

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