Canine distemper is a deadly and highly contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of puppies and dogs. This virus also infects ferrets and wildlife such as foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and skunks. It has even been discovered in seals. Canine distemper should not be confused with feline distemper as each disease is caused by a different virus.
Canine distemper is easily spread, with most dogs being commonly infected by way of airborne exposure (coughing and sneezing). The disease can be transmitted through shared water and food bowls and equipment. Infected wildlife can also spread the disease to your dog should he/she be exposed to infected saliva, urine, and feces found in your backyard or out walking.
Symptoms of the disease often mimic kennel cough at first and can affect dogs differently. Typical signs include: watery or white/green eye discharge, lethargy, coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea. Should the disease progress unchecked, infected dogs can show signs of paralysis, seizures, and agitated behavior.
The disease is often fatal with a mortality rate of 50% in adult dogs and 80% in puppies. Dogs that do survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage. There is no cure for canine distemper and treatment for infected dogs is usually supportive and focused on preventing secondary infections to the disease such as controlling vomiting and diarrhea. Vaccination is your best course of action to keep your dog safe from this deadly disease.
Due to canine distemper’s high mortality rates and ease in which it is spread, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has continually maintained that the canine distemper vaccine be part of your pet’s core vaccinations just like the rabies vaccine. The vaccine is typically given in a combination vaccine that also protects against other serious diseases, such as canine parvovirus and canine adenovirus-2 infections. When vaccinating your puppy a series of vaccinations is administered to him/her to increase the likelihood of building immunity when the immune system has not yet fully matured. To continue to keep your dog safe make sure distemper vaccinations are always up to date or have their titers tested to see if they are due for another vaccine. Since ferrets can contract and transmit the disease, all pet ferrets should be vaccinated, especially those that have dog roommates.