by Michelle Beaupied

Canine distemper (CD) is a highly contagious and often fatal disease caused by a paramyxovirus. It affects both domestic dogs and wild carnivorous animals including: foxes, wolves, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, mink, weasels, martin, fisher, otters, badgers, wolverines, and ferrets. It can attack the respiratory, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems. Mortality in juveniles is higher than in adults. The virus that causes CD is transmitted through direct contact with an infected animal, through the air, through bodily secretions, respiratory secretions, and possibly through contaminated objects. Immunization is the best form of prevention for domestic dogs. Dogs that are not immunized and have contact with other dogs that are not immunized or wildlife are at great risk of developing CD.

Cases of CD are found year round, but in domestic dogs the majority of cases occur in the fall and winter. In wild animals, the majority of cases are seen in the spring and summer since juveniles are more susceptible to infection. Canine distemper and feline distemper are different diseases and are caused by separate viruses.
Symptoms of canine distemper include:

  • Fever
  • Eye and nose discharge
  • Runny nose
  • Anorexia
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Squinting
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Inflammation of the eye
  • Lesions on the retina
  • Inflammation of the optic nerve
  • Diarrhea
  • Cough
  • Labored breathing
  • Loss of tooth enamel
  • Hardening of the foot pads and nose
  • Rough fur coat
  • Emaciated appearance

Most canine distemper deaths occur from neurological complications such as:

  • Ataxia (muscle incoordination)
  • Depression
  • Hyperesthesia (increased sensitivity to pain or touch)
  • Muscle twitching or spasms
  • Paralysis
  • Deterioration of motor and mental skills
  • Seizures

Wild animals with CD appear to act tame or confused and are often found out in the open during the day. They appear disoriented and wander aimlessly. Their sense of fear of humans is lost. It is usually not until this later stage of the disease that wildlife rehabilitators see the infected animals. Unfortunately, most of these animals suffer neurological complications and die.

Canine distemper is not the same disease as rabies though some of the symptoms are similar. Unlike rabies, CD is not transmissible to humans. Caution should be used when approaching an animal suspected of having CD since the animal may also be rabid. It is best to notify an animal control service or wildlife rehabilitation worker to capture the animal.

What can we do?

  • Make sure your pet is properly immunized against canine distemper.
  • Avoid exposing your pet with infected animals including potentially infected wildlife.
  • Take proper sanitation precautions when working with infected animals as canine distemper is highly contagious to other animals.
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