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Canine Distemper – what dog owners need to know

Distemper Vaccine Dogs

Our local news broke a sad story. Stray Rescue of St. Louis is experiencing an outbreak of distemper among their dogs, mainly puppies. Several have already died. Because this virus is highly contagious, the shelter is closed for the next 30 days. They cannot risk bringing in new dogs (who are, obviously, not vaccinated). This deadly virus is, fortunately, not very common, thank to vaccinations. While it does not make the news very often, here’s what you need to know.

The virus
Distemper does not get the attention that parvovirus does, although it can be just as deadly. Thankfully, it’s not all that common, but every veterinarian has seen a case in the past few years. Better news: the distemper virus is a bit of a wimp once it’s outside a living body. While parvo can live on and on in soil or grass, the distemper virus will only last a few hours on its own.

The symptoms & treatment
Distemper is a disease that can produce a variety of symptoms. The most common presentation is a dog (or puppy, usually) with a high fever and a very bad cough. These symptoms can start to show 5-7 days after the dog met with the sick animal. These pups have yellow-green mucous pouring from their nose, and often their eyes. The pups feel like crap! Symptoms can progress to severe vomiting and/or diarrhea, and even neurological signs, like muscle tremors or even seizures. Some dogs develop a hardening of the nose and paw pads. If not treated aggressively, the virus is often fatal. If a dog has progressed to the point of seizures or other neurological signs, the chances of recovery are much lower. Treatment involves hospitalization (in isolation) at a 24/7 facility on IV fluids and IV antibiotics. Other treatments are symptomatic (ie for vomiting, diarrhea, etc).

The source
In the midwest, the most likely source of distemper virus is an infected raccoon. The raccoon will be out during the day, and will not seem shy – it may be acting “drunk.” Because the virus cannot survive overly long outside the body, virus transmission is often via direct contact, or at least close vicinity. The virus is found in pretty much every secretion of a sick dog or raccoon: nasal mucous (from a sneeze), eye discharge, diarrhea, even urine! The virus enters via mucous membranes (nose or mouth).

The vaccine
Everyone has heard of the distemper vaccine. It’s actually a combination shot (usually) that includes protection against parvovirus, adenovirus, and an upper respiratory virus. (Here’s my article all about vaccines). We call it the “distemper shot” because its official name is DHPP, or Distemper – Hepatitis – Parvovirus – Parainfluenza. That’s a mouthful, so we just say “Distemper.” Good news – the shot is highly effective! If you have wildlife in your yard, I recommend protecting your dog with this vaccine. Good news – the vaccine does not need to be given every year, and the three year vaccine is safe and efficacious. Once your dog is vaccinated, you can even have levels of antibodies checked (called titers) to make sure your dog is protected and does not need re-vaccination.

Why puppies?
These outbreaks hit puppies the hardest for two reasons. First, their immune systems are not 100% developed yet. Also, and most importantly, they have not been alive long enough to have been vaccinated, and for that vaccine to protect them from the disease. Depending on vaccine type, it can take roughly 10-20 days for the vaccine to produce a protective immunity from the virus. So if a puppy is brought into a shelter experiencing a distemper outbreak and is given a vaccine right away, it will still be susceptible to the disease for several days. This is why shelters experiencing distemper outbreaks will not accept unvaccinated dogs or new puppies – the chance of them contracting the disease – and dying from it – is very high.

The test
There is a reliable test for distemper that your veterinarian can perform if the disease is suspected. The bad news – unlike the parvo test, which gives us results on the spot in 10 minutes, the tests for distemper must be sent to a lab, and can take a day or two to get results. In a very sick dog with distemper, those two days can mean life or death. Worse, in a shelter situation, that’s two more days of the virus spreading via coughs and sneezes!

Bottom line – distemper is bad news. The reason we do not see it very often is because dog owners have vaccinated their pets! Before the vaccine was developed, this disease killed countless dogs! Maintaining your dog’s protection against this virus will effectively prevent him or her from contracting the disease.

Web-DVM guest blogger Dr. Karen Louis is a practicing small animal veterinarian.  See more of her articles at her blog at

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