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Distemper in dogs

Veterinarian Dr. Karin Schlotterbeck explains:

Distemper is a highly infectious viral disease that is widespread worldwide and is caused by a specific virus that is closely related to the human measles virus. Dogs in particular, but also badgers and foxes, for example, can be affected by distemper. In many cases the infection is fatal. 


What is distemper? 

The virus is transmitted from an infected animal to other animals via body fluids such as saliva, nasal and eye secretions, feces and urine, or through the air. The incubation period is 3-7 days. Young, unvaccinated dogs with an immature immune system or older, weak and unvaccinated dogs are particularly affected . 


How does distemper disease progress? 

The disease progresses in 3 phases: 

  1. Stage of virus spread in the blood 

The body temperature rises to 40 degrees and higher for 1-2 days, the animals are weak, have no appetite, show discharge from the eyes and nose and possibly vomiting and diarrhea. 


  1. Stage of organ manifestation 

The temperature rises again for several days to weeks due to secondary bacterial infections. There are different organ involvements and the corresponding symptoms. Vomiting and diarrhea with dehydration in the stomach and intestines; if the respiratory tract is involved, coughing, purulent nasal discharge and even pneumonia occur. In puppies who have not yet started changing teeth, typical tooth enamel defects occur, the so-called distemper of the permanent teeth. 

Many dogs show typical so-called hard pad disease, a keratinization of the nose and pads. 


  1. Stage of the nervous form 

Since the distemper virus also reaches the central nervous system via the bloodstream , neurological symptoms can occur. These include hypersensitivity to touch, movement disorders, paralysis, epileptic seizures, and difficulty chewing and swallowing. Involuntary twitching of the muscles (“congestion tick”) is also a specific feature of this disease. 


How is distemper disease diagnosed? 

The presumptive diagnosis is made based on the history such as vaccination status and age of the animal and the combination of stomach, intestinal and respiratory symptoms. 

The pathogen can be detected in swabs, for example from tonsils, conjunctiva or genital mucosa, or in blood or urine using various examination methods. 


What are the chances of recovery from distemper and what can you do about it? 

The prognosis depends on the course of the disease and the timely start of treatment. It is favorable when the course is mild, but is bad in severely ill animals or when the nervous form occurs. 

To date, successful antiviral therapy is not yet possible. In the early stages, the use of gamma globulins for passive immunization can be considered. To treat secondary bacterial infections, antibiotics are used, intravenous infusions to compensate for fluid and electrolyte losses in the case of diarrhea and vomiting, and possibly inhalations for respiratory symptoms. The sick animals should be separated from others due to the risk of infection and cared for intensively. 

The most important measure to prevent the disease is prophylactic vaccination. It's best to talk to your veterinarian, who will be happy to answer any further questions you may have about vaccination.