, Newburyport, MA

April 12, 2013

Paw Prints: Protect against canine distemper

Paw Prints, Heidi Bassler

---- — If you live with a dog or cat, you’ve probably heard of distemper. It’s a cause for myths and beliefs, facts and fiction, tales and tails that prevail in the pet-owning world.

What you may not know is that there is currently a canine distemper outbreak in our area. For Fido’s sake, now is a good time for a refresher course so that you may protect your pooch in the weeks and months ahead.

To help differentiate distemper tales from true de-tails, here’s a list of commonly asked questions and answers.

Does distemper have anything to do with my pet’s temperament?

This is a common misperception. Distemper is caused by a virus, and it has nothing to do with your pet’s everyday temperament.

Vaccinating a cat or dog against distemper will not change his behavior. It will not make a good dog become naughty or a disobedient dog become well-mannered.

Can dogs and cats pass distemper to one other?

Fortunately, no. Canine distemper is unrelated to feline distemper, so Fido and Fluffy cannot pass the virus one another.

Recent news stories warn about canine distemper in our area. Can other pets be affected?

Although canine distemper can infect a variety of animals, the susceptible pet population is limited to dogs and ferrets.

What other species can be infected?

Canine distemper can infect other wild canids, including foxes and coyotes. Raccoons and skunks are susceptible, too.

Wildlife serve as the viral sentinel, keeping the disease endemic in our area. Despite widespread vaccination of pets, canine distemper is active in wild animals that live in our neighborhoods and encounter our dogs. A sick raccoon can wander into your yard and infect the new puppy you recently adopted.

Word of warning — an abnormally behaving raccoon in your yard may have distemper or rabies. So keep your distance and call animal control.

I’ve heard that distemper in dogs is like measles in people. Is this true?

Not really. Canine distemper and human measles are different diseases, affecting different species (dog vs. human), with different clinical symptoms.

However, the viruses are genetically related. Before the advent of modern vaccines, the earliest canine distemper vaccines actually contained human measles virus. This is no longer a recommended practice.

In summary, people cannot get measles from a dog with distemper, and vice versa.

How would I know if my dog is infected?

Initial clinical signs resemble those of kennel cough, including the characteristic coughing, often with nasal discharge, fever and goopy eye discharge. Some dogs have a poor appetite, and vomiting or diarrhea.

Fido may seem to recover, and then become sick again one week later. This time, his signs are neurological. You may see dizziness, weakness, facial twitching, or seizures that may range from mild to severe. “Chewing gum” seizures are common, during which the patient has rhythmic jaw-chomping behavior that resembles chewing on gum. Severe seizures may be uncontrollable and may lead to death.

One challenge is that canine distemper can mimic a lot of other illnesses. This classic biphasic pattern of clinical signs helps your veterinarian establish a diagnosis of distemper.

What is the treatment if my dog comes down with distemper?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the distemper virus. Affected dogs are supported medically, and secondary problems are addressed. For example, proper hydration is managed with fluid therapy; secondary bacterial infections are treated with appropriate antibiotics; medicines are prescribed for coughing and gastrointestinal upset; and seizures can often be controlled with anti-seizure medication.

About fifty percent of dogs that become ill with canine distemper virus will not survive. The dog’s immune system plays a large role in whether or not he will recover.

My dog had his first set of puppy shots. Is that enough to protect him?

A puppy’s immune system is unable to provide long-term distemper protection. Young Fido’s immune system must be taught how to do this. Puppies should have pediatric visits every three to four weeks until they are at least four months old. There are multiple reasons for this schedule, and boosting distemper immunity is one of them.

The breeder told me my puppy was exposed to distemper when he was young. He seems fine now. Do I need to worry?

Even if Fido Jr. survived distemper as a puppy, he may have health consequences later. Some dogs develop “hard pad disease” or “old dog encephalitis.” The virus can hide in dogs, only to resurface years later. These affected dogs can have symptoms that range from thickened footpads to brain inflammation.

How can I protect my dog from the current distemper outbreak?

Fortunately, excellent vaccines are available to protect dogs from this deadly virus. Puppies should have a series of vaccines, and adult dogs need regular boosters.


Dr. Heidi Bassler practices at Bassler Veterinary Hospital ( She hosts a radio show, “Your Pet’s Health,” every Sunday morning at 8:30 on AM-1450 WNBP. Do you have questions for Dr. Bassler? Send them to