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The Canine Distemper

The Canine Distemper is produced by the virus with the same name, and it affects not only dogs, but several other carnivores like bears, wild felines, wild canines, the dog being the principal reservoir of virus.

The Canine Distemper Virus is part of the Paramyxoviridae family, being related with the human measles and several other viruses that infect ruminants, pigs and dolphins.

Domestic cats don’t show clinical signs and the disease is self-limiting, the so called Feline Distemper is not related to the Canine Distemper Virus, so you don’t have to worry about your can get sick from your dog. However in dog populations, the virus spreads fast.

The virus spreads by contact with any bodily secretion from infected animals, but it is abundant in the respiratory secretion, this is why sneezing is considered the main infection route. Several cases established that infection in the embryonic state is possible.

Is my dog infected?

The disease starts with fever, decrease in appetite, coughing, conjunctivitis, diarrhea. In a few weeks after the systemic signs resolve, some dogs develop neurologic signs.

The disease can be easily confused with other diseases like parvovirus, keratoconjunctivitis, kennel cough, and the list can continue.

The diagnosis is based on the clinical suspicion, this is why it is important for you to constantly monitor your dog, and be able to provide the clinician with a complete history of feces, general status, food and water intake, etc.

The clinician have a number of diagnostic instruments that can use for a differential diagnostic that might included: blood analysis, radiograph, etc.

For the definitive diagnostic there are quick tests, similar to the pregnancy tests you might be more accustomed to, depending on the method, this tests show a color reaction when the specific antibody is detected in the sample, and clinician can have a result in 10-15 minutes. Unfortunately these tests are not 100% sure, there is a margin of error that some cases are not detected or some cases are detected positive when they are negative.

There are more advanced laboratory techniques that can establish the presence of the virus in certain tissues, but viral isolation is time consuming and sometimes the sample is not stable enough for this type of testing.

You can understand why the history, clinical findings and the quick tests are the most used.

How can you protect your dog from this virus?

Periodic immunization is the best chance to avoid or at least minimize the risk of infection, the vaccine gives the dogs immunity, but this doesn’t make them virus free, a dog can be infected with the virus, but since he has an immune system that recognizes the virus and able to fight it, the dog will not show signs of the disease.

Immunized dogs that have been infected unfortunately shed the virus through their secretions with the risk of infecting other dogs that are not immunized or that are immune suppressed.

Can it be treated?

Unfortunately there isn’t a specific therapy available, the therapy is mostly supportive and nonspecific, this kind of treatment it was shown to reduce the mortality.

You have to keep in mind that even if the neurologic signs didn’t appear yet, there is the risk of sequelae to develop later in the evolution of the disease.

The treatment is aimed to treat the bacterial complications in the digestive and respiratory tract, since the most exposed to this disease are young dogs the range of antibiotics that can be used within this age range is considerably narrower than the antibiotics used for an adult dog. In the absence of the digestive signs it is preferred to feed the animals, the intravenous treatment is preferred only when the digestive tract is compromised.

Once the neurologic signs have appeared, steroid anti-inflammatory drugs will be used to limit the encephalitis that usually appears in this disease.

Unfortunately most of the dogs that developed neurologic signs rarely recover, and those that do recover will have neurologic sequelae like tremors, head shaking and other stereotypic movements for the rest of the life.

The dogs that survive this disease have a strong prolonged immunity that in some cases was established to be life-long.


Craig E. Greene, DVM, MS, DACVIM – INFECTIOUS DISEASES OF THE DOG AND CAT, edition 3, Elsevier ,  2006

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