Canine distemper is a serious and highly contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks the gastrointestinal, respiratory and often, the nervous system of a puppy or dog. This disease can affect dogs of any age, although it is more likely to affect puppies than older dogs. Wild canids such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, skunks, ferrets and raccoons are also susceptible to this disease.

Outbreaks of canine distemper tend to be sporadic. Puppies and dogs alike are usually infected by airborne exposure to the virus contained in respiratory secretions of an infected dog or wild animal. The canine distemper virus is shed through all body secretions from the infected animal. Dogs may spread the virus for several weeks during the illness and during the following recovery period.

Although all dogs are at risk, puppies younger than four months of age and dogs that have not been vaccinated against the disease are at higher risk of acquiring canine distemper. Young puppies are very susceptible to infection, in part because the natural immunity from their mother’s milk may wear off before the puppy’s own immune system is mature enough to fight off infections. If a puppy is exposed to the distemper virus during this gap in protection, it may become ill. Another concern is that the immunity contained in a mother’s milk may interfere with the effects of vaccination. In other words, vaccinated puppies may occasionally succumb to the disease. To optimally protect puppies against canine distemper, a series of vaccinations is administered during the first few months of life.

Signs of canine distemper virus are varied and mimic symptoms of other illnesses, which makes it difficult to rule out as the cause of sickness in a puppy or dog. Listed below are some signs that may be present.

Early Stage Signs: eye discharge: may appear watery to pus-like, fever, nasal discharge, lethargy, reduced appetite, coughing, diarrhea and vomiting.

Late Stage Signs: seizures, twitching and partial or complete paralysis.

At present, there is no specific drug available that will kill the distemper virus in infected dogs or puppies. Control of neurological signs such as seizures and general supportive care, can sometimes result in recovery, but it will most likely be a long term project. Even if a dog or puppy does not die from the distemper disease, it may sustain irreparable damage to it’s nervous system. Canine distemper is so serious and the signs so varied, any sick dog or puppy should be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible for an examination and diagnosis.

Prevention is the best course of action for dealing with canine distemper. Vaccination against the disease, as well as avoiding contact with infected animals, is necessary for the health and well being of puppies and dogs. Consult your veterinarian for a recommended vaccination program for your canine companion.