Canine Distemper is a very serious and often fatal viral illness that affects dogs and other members of the Canidae family; it also infects other animals belonging to the Mustelidae, Procyonidae, Mephitidae, and Felidae Families. It is a single-stranded negative RNA virus that causes a systemic infection in the host dog. The word 'distemper' is derived from the Old French word destemprer, which means to disturb.
This virus is also known by the term 'Hard Pad'. This is because it often causes enlargement and thickening of the pads of the feet. This is one of the less-serious symptoms. It mainly attacks the nervous system of the dog and causes fits, and sometimes even paralysis. It strikes a dog at any age. However, unvaccinated dogs and three to six month old puppies are most susceptible. This virus spreads through aerosol droplets and contact with infected bodily fluids such as nasal and ocular secretions, urine, and feces. It takes 18 to 22 days from contact for it to spread completely.
It is transmitted by coming in contact directly with the infected dog, or indirectly with its saliva or urine. It also spreads through air, and through contact with the bedding or utensils used by the affected animal.
The signs of the disease can appear after 3 to 8 days from infection. The first signs of the illness manifest themselves in the form of a high fever (39 degrees C or 102 Degrees F), accompanied by reddened eyes, anorexia, and a thick or watery discharge from the nose. The white blood cells and platelet counts also drops. This is the first round of fever, which reduces within 96 hours. The second round begins on the 11th or 12th day.
The virus first attacks the tonsils and the lymph nodes, which makes the dog sluggish and kills all its appetite. The dog also drastically loses weight and displays a persistent cough. Often, acute vomiting and diarrhea with bloody traces, excessive salivation, dehydration, and labored breathing also follow. These are the gasrtointestinal and respiratory symptoms. There is a distinct thickening or hyperkeratosis of the foot pads. The teeth start turning brown and show pits.
This is followed by signs of neurological damage, such as fits which are accompanied by excessive salivation, jaw movements which are also known as 'chewing gum fits' or 'distemper myoclonus', and chorea or nervous tics. The dog also shows symptoms such as sensitivity to light, loss of motor capabilities, extreme sensitivity to pain or touch, and incoordination. In rare cases, it can lead to blindness and paralysis. These symptoms may not occur until several weeks or months later. The muscle tics diminish in severity with time.
Chances of Survival
The virus, although not a zoonosis, resembles the measles virus. The vaccine to prevent measles is often used to treat puppies that have been exposed to this virus. As there is no specific cure, the medications are mostly symptomatic. Older dogs are treated with various antibiotic injections, intravenous fluid drips, and force-feeding them supplementary nutrient-rich liquids and foods.
However, there is no complete cure yet and in a majority of cases, the illness proves to be fatal. However, sometimes, if the defensive anti-bodies in a particular dog are strong, the infection is overcome and the animal recovers. The dogs that survive often either lose their teeth, or their teeth are pitted and brownish in color. They have thickened skins of the nose and on the foot-pads, and can also show corneal discoloring and retinal damage. Other symptoms may be a progressive degeneration of motor capabilities and mental abilities. This is due to the attack on the nervous system.
Sometimes, even if it looks like the dog has recovered, the virus lives on in its brain and suddenly activates after a gap of several years. However, in a large percentage of cases, it has an immediate adverse effect. The virus quickly spreads throughout the body and attacks the nervous system. Once this happens, the situation is generally not good. The affected dog suffers fits and sometimes even paralysis. In such cases, it is best to consider euthanizing the dog and putting it out of the pain that it is going through.
Canine Distemper cannot be cured, but it can be easily prevented. Adequate precautions should be taken to avoid this illness altogether. Puppies should receive their first vaccination at the age of about 6 weeks. This is the time when most puppies are weaned, and so the protection afforded by the antibodies provided by the mother's milk is lessening. The second vaccination should be given a month later. Until all the vaccinations are complete, the puppy or older dog should be quarantined and not be allowed any contact with other dogs, or places where other dogs frequent.
The infected canine should be immediately isolated, and the surrounding areas should be thoroughly cleansed with strong detergents. This will kill the virus and prevent it from transferring to another host.