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Canine distemper: What is it, what does it do and how can you protect your pet?

Over the past couple of years, we’ve all been learning about viruses and what we can do to keep ourselves safe. It’s no different for our pets. Our pets are exposed to viruses, too, some of them deadly.

Just as there are ways to protect ourselves against viruses, there are ways to protect our pets. For dogs, there are four core vaccines in addition to the rabies vaccine. Vaccinating against rabies is required by law. The four core vaccines, generally available in a combination shot and used by most veterinarians are for parvovirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza and canine distemper.

Canine distemper is one of the viruses whose name sounds familiar but not many people know what it is or its symptoms. Distemper is a virus that affects domestic dogs and parts of the wildlife population. Animals such as skunks, raccoons and coyotes can contract the virus. While it is most common in puppies, under-vaccinated adult dogs can also contract it.

There isn’t a cure for distemper. Once contracted, supportive care is the only option. Keeping the pet hydrated with fluids, antibiotics to protect against possible secondary infection, medications to help control vomiting, syringe feeding food and other supportive measures are all that can be done.

Distemper affects multiple systems within the body; it is also known as the “hard pad disease” because the virus causes the footpads to harden. Other symptoms start with the respiratory system. Symptoms will include a discharge from the eyes and the nose and coughing. Like parvovirus, the virus also affects the gastrointestinal system, with symptoms such as lethargy, vomiting and a decrease in appetite or anorexia. Next, the virus will attack the nervous system. The dog will start circling, develop a head tilt, muscle twitches, have excessive salivation associated with a chewing motion. The final symptoms are seizures and paralysis. This virus is usually fatal. If a dog does survive, they will likely have damage to their nervous system that is irreversible, shortening their life span and causing health issues.

Distemper is highly contagious and is an airborne virus. The most common way puppies and dogs spread the virus is through sneezes, coughs, or barks. The virus can also be contracted if a dog or puppy drinks or eats after an infected dog. Generally, it takes between one and two weeks from the time a puppy was exposed to develop symptoms. If the puppy survives, it can shed the virus and infect others for about four months, even if the puppy is well again.

The only thing that we can do to prevent our puppies from getting the virus is vaccinating against it and keeping them away from unvaccinated dogs. The cost of the hospital stay is much higher than the cost of the vaccine, and the vaccine is much easier to deal with than losing a beloved pet.

Cassidy Smith is a member of the medical staff at La Plata County Humane Society.