Canine Distemper

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This page is about the very serious viral disease known as distemper.

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Canine Distemper (CDV)
(also known as "Hardpad disease")


Canine distemper is a highly contagious, systemic, viral disease of dogs seen worldwide. It is characterized by a diphasic fever, leukopenia, intestinal and respiratory inflammation, and frequently respiratory and neurologic complications.

The disease occurs in Canidae such as coyotes, foxes, & wolves, as well as dogs.  And also the ferret, mink, skunk and raccoon

Etiology and Pathogenesis: Canine distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus closely related to the viruses of measles and rinderpest. The enveloped virus is sensitive to lipid solvents and most disinfectants and is relatively unstable outside the host. The main route of infection is via aerosol droplet secretions from infected animals. Some infected dogs may shed virus for several months.

Virus replication initially occurs in the lymphatic tissue of the respiratory tract. A cell- associated viremia results in infection of all lymphatic tissues, which is followed by infection of respiratory, GI, and urogenital epithelium, as well as the CNS. Disease follows virus replication in these tissues. The degree of viremia and extent of spread of virus to various tissues is moderated by the level of specific humoral immunity in the host during the viremic period.
Clinical Findings:

Eye discharge
Edema of the eye making it look blue
Lack of appetite
Diarrhea and other GI signs
Nasal discharge, and other respiratory signs
Crusty nose
Paw pads that are hard, cracked, or corny.crusted
Neural signs; twitching, mini seizures, parlysis, staggering or acting drunk, convulsions, excessive salivation

Notice: these are very similar symptoms to rabies: be careful

Laboratory Findings:

Reduced white blood cells, especially lymphcytes

Prevention: We still see an occasional distemper case in pet dogs in our practice, but vaccination has been so successful, that this is now a rare disease in the United States.  When I was a boy, it was extremely common.  In the old days, sometimes county workers on their rounds would carry a 22 rifle in their vehicles and shoot any stray dog that was staggering, acting drunk, or crazy in order to eliminate any dogs that might be carrying rabies or distemper.

Thankfully, now we can protect our dogs with a very effective and safe vaccine... a series of which should be given every 3-4 weeks starting at 6 weeks old until 14-16 weeks old, and then once a year until at least 3 years old. After that every 1-3 years depending on your vet's risk assessment for your dog.

Treatment: Treatments are directed at limiting secondary bacterial invasion, supporting the fluid balance and overall well-being of the dog, and controlling nervous manifestations. Antibiotics, electrolyte solutions, protein hydrolysates, dietary supplements, antipyretics, nasal preparations, analgesics, and anticonvulsants are used. No one treatment is specific or uniformly successful. Dogs may recover completely from systemic manifestations, but good nursing care is essential. Despite intensive care, some dogs do not make a satisfactory recovery. Unfortunately, treatment for neurologic manifestations of distemper are unsuccessful. If the neurologic signs are progressive or severe, the owner should be appropriately advised.

The picture above is the paw pad of a skunk showing typical lesions from distemper.  Skunks, foxes, racoons, and coyotes are frequent carriers of distemper, rabies and parvo. 
Distemper disease in dogs is not common in North America anymore because of extensive vaccination of pets over the last 50 years.  But because the disease is still prevalent in wildlife, vaccination is still important.
The population of coyotes is growing at a rapid rate in many areas of the country and often encroach into suburban and even urban communities.  There are many sightings and lots of rumors and some hard evidence that they are killing neighborhood cats and small breed dogs in addition to sheep, calves, deer, and other fauna. 
But they also present another hazard; Coyotes are carriers of distemper, rabies, and parvo virus.  And they also bring ticks, fleas, heartworms, and intestinal worms to our neighborhoods.
Nasal discharge, crusty nose and paw pads, eye edema making the eye appear blue, diarrhea, vomiting, and acting disoriented are all symptoms of distemper. Many of these symptoms are also seen with rabies.  Be careful out there... especially all you kind hearted people that rescue stray pets.