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Canine distemper – causes and symptoms

Causes and Symptoms
Distemper is caused by a virus that attacks dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, ferrets, mink, badgers, and other carnivores. (In fact, distemper is quite common among wild animals. Cats, however, do not catch canine distemper; feline distemper is a different virus.)

Distemper was once thought to be caused by neglect, impure food, and/or anti�hygienic conditions (such as damp, cold, or poorly ventilated kennels). However, we now know that distemper spreads via a virus.

Canine distemper virus is shed in all body secretions from infected animals; most animals catch distemper by breathing the virus in. Dogs may catch distemper by sniffing a wild animal�s excrement, eating or drinking from a dish or pool where an infected animal has been, or merely by being near an animal that�s infected. Pregnant female dogs who are infected with distemper may pass the disease onto their pups.

Dogs may spread the virus for several weeks during the illness and subsequent recovery period.

Once inhaled, the virus moves to the lymph nodes, where it rapidly begins reproducing. It then spreads through the lymphatic tissue and infects all the lymphoid organs. This takes only two to five days. After six to nine days have passed, the virus spreads to the blood, then to the cell lining of the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and central nervous systems. Once it has done this, symptoms begin to appear.

Early symptoms materialize about four days after infection and vary from dog to dog. Some dogs show no sign of any symptoms. Nonetheless, some common symptoms of distemper include:

  • Conjunctivitis (watery or pus-like discharge from the eyes)
  • Fever (usually present but unnoticed)
  • Pneumonia (coughing, labored breathing)
  • Rhinitis (runny nose or discharge from the nose)
  • Mild eye irritation
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

These symptoms are often exacerbated by secondary bacterial infections. Dogs almost always develop encephalomyelitis (an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord), the symptoms of which are variable and progressive.

Most dogs that die from distemper die from neurological complications such as the following:

Ataxia (muscle incoordination)


Hyperesthesia (increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as pain or touch)

Myoclonus (muscle twitching or spasm), which can become disabling


Paresis (partial or incomplete paralysis)

Progressive deterioration of mental abilities

Progressive deterioration of motor skills

Seizures that can affect any part of the body (One type of seizure that affects the head, and is unique to distemper, is sometimes referred to as a �chewing gum fit� because the dog appears to be chewing gum.)

Hyperkeratosis (hardening of the foot pads and nose)

Many dogs experience symptoms of the eye:

Inflammation of the eye (keratoconjunctivitis, inflammation of the cornea and conjunctiva, or chorioretinitis, inflammation of the choroid and retina)

Lesions on the retina (the innermost layer of the eye)

Optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve which leads to blindness)

Two relatively minor conditions that often become chronic, even in dogs that recover are:

Enamel hypoplasia (unenameled teeth that erode quickly in puppies whose permanent teeth haven�t erupted yet – the virus kills all the cells that make teeth enamel)

If left untreated, distemper can lead to death. (About 50 percent of infected adult dogs, and 80 percent of puppies, die from distemper.) If the dog lives, it may have permanent damage to its nervous system – including a lack of sense of smell, hearing, or sight. Partial or total paralysis is not uncommon.

Often the early stages of distemper are ignored because pet owners think their dog has a mere cold. Don�t make this mistake. If your dog has the sniffles, it�s time to call the vet.

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