Canine Distemper: The World's #1 Killer of Dogs
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Silver Lining: It's Preventable
According to studies, it’s the number one cause of infectious disease deaths in dogs worldwide, however in the U.S. distemper is one of the core vaccines so we only encounter it sporadically.
Core vaccines, by the way, are not required by law, but are considered by 2006 American Animal Hospital Association guidelines to be vital to all dogs based on risk of exposure, severity of disease or transmissibility to humans.
Although it sounds like a behavioral issue, canine distemper is a serious and highly contagious virus, affecting many organs of the body, including the brain, lungs, gut, skin and eyes.
It’s similar to human measles and has nothing to do with violent behavior.
While there’s no cure, it is preventable. And unlike rabies, canine distemper cannot be passed on to humans. But, wild animals can infect dogs so it’s wise not to let your dog stray too far from you while you’re outside lest he engage a wild animal either as a playmate or prey.
In addition to wild canids such as foxes, the disease can also be passed on by raccoons, skunks, coyotes, otter, mink and fisher.
Distemper is highly contagious because it can be transmitted through the air and is shed in all bodily fluids. And it can be fatal.
The highest mortality rate occurs among the very young and the old, those that are unvaccinated, and those not generally well cared for nor in good health.
Dogs that survive the disease may carry "scars" the rest of their lives.
Puppies that survive often have badly mottled teeth because the virus affects the developing enamel.
Adult survivors frequently have permanent vision damage, neurological disorders and a thickening of the nose and foot pads.
Symptoms and Treatment
Although the canine distemper virus is very similar to the human measles virus, the symptoms are closer to those of the flu. The most common symptoms of distemper are runny eyes and nose, cough, diarrhea, vomiting, and sometimes seizures.
There's no specific treatment for canine distemper. The symptoms are treated as they occur, an IV is often started to prevent dehydration, and, if necessary, medications that block seizures are administered.
The key to the whole thing is prevention. Highly effective vaccines have been available for years. Check with your own veterinarian, but in general, puppies should be vaccinated at six, nine, twelve and fifteen weeks, and at one year of age. Boosters should be given annually for life.
And, of course, there's the usual advice about not trying to catch or handle wild mammals. Remember that it is impossible to determine if distemper (or rabies) is present based on behavior.
With wild animals bedding down under our decks and sheds, feeding from, and hunting at, our birdfeeders, and using our property as an access route from here to there, it's absolutely necessary that you keep your pets' shots up to date.