Canine distemper is a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease that typically affects young puppies or dogs that are not adequately vaccinated. Individuals become sick after they come in contact with virus particles that have been shed in the respiratory secretions, saliva and other bodily fluids of infected dogs. Canine distemper is also sometimes called hard pad disease.
Typical canine distemper symptoms include a fever, discharge from the eyes and nose, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing and difficulty breathing. Days, weeks or even longer after a dog's other symptoms have started to improve, some individuals develop thickened skin on the nose and footpads and neurological abnormalities. A long list of diseases can cause some or all of these symptoms, so veterinarians may need the results of blood work, a urinalysis, fecal examinations, x-rays, and specific tests for canine parvovirus and canine distemper before being able to reach a definitive diagnosis.
No specific therapy against the canine distemper virus is available, but fluid and nutritional support and antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections can sustain many infected dogs until their immune systems destroy the virus. However, once neurological signs develop, the disease carries a much poorer prognosis. Because infected individuals are highly contagious to other dogs and can remain so for months after they recover, quarantine procedures must be strictly followed. Vaccination on an appropriate schedule is highly effective at preventing canine distemper.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008