One of the oldest canine viral diseases that still may affect dogs and cats is the canine virus, distemper. While infection with this virus is rare in most canine populations, clinical infectious disease may still be quite severe in certain ages and populations of susceptible pets. In many cases this is because of the persistence of canine distemper virus in certain populations, such as the shelters, as well as a reservoir in the wild life populations, including wild canines and certain other species of animals. As with most viral infections, the incidence will be higher in those pet populations which are stressed by overcrowding, poor hygiene, and pets whose nutritional intake is very poor.
While canine distemper virus is in the same family of viruses as measles virus in humans, canine distemper virus is not contagious to people. In fact, most pets who are exposed to canine distemper virus develop mild or subclinical infections and recover on their own. However, because of the occasional more serious outbreaks of canine distemper, it is still important for animal guardians to be familiar with this infectious disease.
Symptoms may mimic more common viral and/or bacterial upper respiratory infections causing conjunctivitis, sneezing, nasal discharge and/or coughing, which may be misdiagnosed as canine kennel cough complex. Other pets may develop a papular measles-type eruption along the abdomen, often during puppyhood or the actual puppy vaccination process that is often diagnosed as puppy pyoderma by veterinarians, and which most of the time resolves on its own. Other less common dermatologic findings include the development of hardened and thickened paw pads as well as nail bed infections. Probably the most known of the rare effects of canine distemper are the potential neurological effects, which may include behavioral changes and seizures.
Although the overall risk and incidence of this disease is still quite low, animal guardians will want to be aware of how to prevent this infectious disease in their canine companions. Because of the higher risk to the developing immune systems of puppies under one year of age, this is one of the viruses that new puppy owners will want to consider vaccinating their pets for. While the presences of maternal antibodies (from the mothers’ milk) will offer some partial protection against infection, many veterinarians will offer a series of vaccinations beginning at 8 weeks of age, every 3 to 4 weeks through 14 to 16 weeks of age, as the maternal antibodies wane.
As with parvo virus, I prefer to vaccinate for ONE virus at a time in pets, if possible, as too many viral components in a vaccination may overwhelm a developing puppy’s immune system and cause unwanted short and long term effects. If a puppy is vaccinated at age 14 to 16 weeks of age with one of the modern modified live viral vaccinations, immunity should persist for years or the life of the animal, making annual or every 3 year vaccination un-necessary in most canines. As an alternative to vaccination of adult or senior pets, the measurement of blood antibody levels offer a safer option than simply blindly vaccinating these older pets.
Many of my holistic veterinary clients will explore the use of homeopathic viral nosodes during the first year of life, when susceptibility is highest. If a pet is diagnosed with clinical distemper, treatment is simply supportive, including the use of fluid therapy, antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections, as well as the use of anticonvulsant medications to control seizures. Immunity to natural infection is typically lifelong, although in rare cases, it is believed that reactivation of viral infection later in life may occur as the pets’ immune system function lessens.