Canine Distemper

This is a very serious, but luckily fairly rare disease. It is an infection caused by a virus that starts out sort of like a bad form of pneumonia, but gets progressively worse until it starts damaging the nervous system of the dog. It is fatal in many cases, but many dogs also fully recover with no problems afterward.


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What are the symptoms?

Distemper has three distinct stages, and each one has different symptoms. The first stage will seem relatively minor. The symptoms here are coughing, discharge from the dog's nose, fever, and a lack of appetite. Even though they seem minor, it can still be fatal at this stage.

The second stage involves hard pad disease, which is a condition where the dog's pads and nose become very hard to the touch. The dog may also have digestive issues such as vomiting and diarrhea.

The third stage is the most dangerous. This is when the distemper begins to affect the nervous system of the dog. The most common symptom is seizures, but there can be all kinds of effects - tremors, convulsions, weakness, and loss of balance are all common.

The dog may survive the final phase with permanent damage, it may die from it, or it may survive with no remaining problems at all.

I should also note that just because your dog gets to one stage does NOT mean it is definitely going to go all the way through. Dogs can recover at any stage, and many dogs recover at the first or second stage without ever getting to the final one. Adult dogs tend to recover more easily, while puppies are more likely to die from it because they have weaker immune systems.

How does a dog get it?

It is caught from other dogs. Most dogs are vaccinated against it - it's one of the common required vaccines, so a puppy that is too young to be vaccinated or a stray from a shelter are those that are most likely to have it. Unlike other diseases, distemper is not caught through the air. It requires either direct contact with another dog or contact with the feces, spit, or other body fluids of the infected dog.

What is the treatment?

Once a dog has it, there is no simple treatment that will make it go away. Your dog's body will have to fight it off on its own. However, your vet can give your dog antibiotics that will make it more likely to survive (by killing any opportunistic infections that take advantage of your dog's weakness) and by using general treatments such as IV fluids and immune system boosters. Your vet will need to verify that it is distemper (it can be hard to diagnose with certainty) and will need to make sure the dog has fully recovered.

If your dog does not yet have distemper, it can easily be vaccinated for it.

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