Distemper virus can cause a life-threatening disease in dogs, especially young dogs that have not been fully vaccinated. Clinical signs vary, ranging from nasal discharge and cough, runny eyes, decreased appetite, diarrhoea and vomiting to neurological signs at a later stage, such as seizures, muscle twitching and head tilt. Distemper is also called “hard pad disease” due to possible blister-like lesions on the feet. Some dogs can spread the disease without having any clinical signs.
Diagnosis is not always straightforward, but a combination of history, clinical signs and blood tests are often used. Suspected cases can also be confirmed with a molecular technique. There is no specific cure for the disease, the therapy is based on controlling the symptoms. Preventing secondary infections, maintaining fluid balance and controlling seizures are common procedures. Roughly half of the patients with neurologic signs will die or have permanent damage. This is why prevention is very important.
Luckily vaccines are very effective in preventing the disease. Young puppies and older non-vaccinated dogs need to be given at least 2 vaccines 3 weeks apart, and a yearly booster to follow. Dogs should not be exposed to other dogs or wildlife until the entire series of vaccinations is completed.
Article by Dr. Laura Wessman