Is it true that distemper only occurs in young dogs?

April 13, 2012

The first few weeks after being born are critical period for puppies. Due to a weak and undeveloped immune system, puppies are highly susceptible to disease-carrying viruses and bacteria. The importance of veterinary care during this period cannot be stressed enough. A new puppy owner would schedule an appointment with a vet before or as soon as the new pet is taken home. Along with a complete physical, the dog will receive immunization that will protect them from life threatening diseases. A combined injection will be the dog’s preventive measure against parvovirus, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza and distemper.

Canine distemper is a highly contagious multisystemic viral disease. This incurable and often fatal disease affects the central nervous system, gastrointestinal and respiratory systems. Canine distemper virus affects domesticated dogs worldwide. The contagious virus also affects wolves, foxes, coyotes, raccoons and other wild animals. Contrary to the common belief that distemper only affects young dogs, this life threatening disease also infects adult dogs. Occurrence of the disease is most common in unvaccinated adult dogs and in adult dogs with weakened immune system. However, puppies are most susceptible because of undeveloped immune system. Fifty percent of adult dogs that develop the disease die. Puppies and young dogs have a much lower rate of survival as only about 20% of young dogs affected by the virus survive. A dog that managed to survive distemper would commonly have a permanently damaged health thus it would be susceptible to infections and other kinds of diseases. Distemper would leave a dog with an impaired sense of smell and hearing. A more debilitating consequence of the disease is paralysis. Distemper can leave a dog partially or totally paralyzed.

It is fortunate that humans are not affected by canine distemper virus as this highly contagious disease is airborne. Without vaccination as preventive measure, it would be quite impossible to prevent a dog from being exposed to the virus. Infected dogs would shed the virus through the feces and urine and through bodily secretions. A dog can get infected when it gets in contact with the mucous or eyes and nose discharge of an infected animal. Canine distemper virus can exist outside a host animal for long periods of time thus a healthy dog that uses a crate used by an infected animal would be exposed to the virus and can develop the disease too.

CDV affects multiple organs. As such the disease would be hard to recognize as the symptoms would mimic the symptoms of other diseases. At the onset of the disease it is often mistaken for a bad case of cold. Fever or a temperature of 103° F to 106° F is the initial symptom of distemper. The dog would have gooey eye and nose discharge as well. The dog would show more serious symptoms when the virus spreads and the disease progresses. The dog would vomit and have diarrhea. Because the nervous system is affected the dog will manifest nervous twitching that will later on develop to partial or complete paralysis.

There is no treatment for distemper. Supportive care while the dog is fighting the disease with its own immune system is the only treatment the dog can receive. Antibiotics can be administered for secondary bacterial infections. Dogs with distemper would have poor appetite, would vomit and have diarrhea. The pet must be closely monitored for dehydration. If diagnosing and treating distemper is difficult and challenging, preventing the disease is the easy part. Before the advent of vaccination in the middle part of the 20th century, a breakout of the disease in an area would practically wipe out all the dogs. Thanks to vaccination programs, distemper these days is considered as a rare disease. Without a doubt, vaccination is the best prevention against distemper.

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