Canine Distemper – Prevention and Early Detection are Key
Distemper is a viral infection that is pretty similar to the measles virus in humans. Canine distemper is a major cause of death in unvaccinated puppies and older dogs and it affects respiratory, intestinal, and central nervous system. The good news, if there is any when talking about distemper, is that many dogs infected with this disease do not show symptoms because their body just fights the virus off. Now the bad news is that among the dogs that do get sick, about half of them will die from the disease.
When I studied the causes of diseases in pharmacy school, a few conditions were so easy to remember that they didn’t need much review the night before the exam. Canine distemper is one of the easy ones to remember because it’s caused by something called the canine distemper virus (CDV). If a student couldn’t guess that on a multiple choice exam then I would strongly suggest they save a lot of time and money and find a different field of study.
The canine distemper virus starts to suppress the immune system and then it spreads throughout the lymphatic system. About a week later the virus will not only be in all the lymphatic system, but it also would have spread to the blood. The virus can be easily spread through small particles that are carried in the air but the virus itself is easily killed by soaps and cleaning chemicals found around the home.
The symptoms of canine distemper infection involve the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems such as lack of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. Fever, eye discharge, inflammation, lesions on the retina, and inflammation affecting the optic nerve can even lead to blindness. Seizures can develop if the disease is untreated and starts spreading to the brain. The very young and very old are usually the ones that already have a weakened immune system and are most likely to get pneumonia. Omega 3 fatty acids can help normalize the brain and immune system functions a little, but if the dog does not receive the proper treatment and care from a veterinarian there is a 50% chance that an infected dog will die from the disease.
The best and pretty much the only way to get a proper diagnosis is to bring the dog to a veterinarian who will perform certain blood tests that examine cells from different areas of the body. If the virus is not found it is still possible that the dog has distemper. In those cases the veterinarian may make further examinations with a microscope to try and find further evidence that indicate the presence of the virus.
Once distemper is diagnosed, the dog is usually given supportive care so the body can fight the infection and not have to deal with other infections or stresses such as dehydration. Antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin or Baytril are usually given to prevent pneumonia since the immune system is not at its tip-top shape. Intravenous fluids are usually given to keep the pet well hydrated. Medication to prevent or treat diarrhea or vomiting is sometimes given if needed. Steroids such as prednisone or methylprednisolone may be given in some rare cases if inflammation of the optic nerve needs to be treated to prevent blindness. Since steroids can further suppress the immune system, they are usually avoided unless absolutely necessary.
Certain antivirals such as ribavirin have also shown some promise against the distemper virus. The last I heard, ribavirin was still being tested against distemper and was showing some promise. The past few days I have not been able to get an update on the current use of ribavirin or to get in contact with the key individuals involved in either the manufacturing or the research for an update on the potential use of ribavirin this way. As soon as I get any answers that are worth mentioning, I will write another short blog or give an update some other way to keep you informed. Either way only the veterinarian can decide on the best course of treatment and since this is a dangerous disease it is best to seek veterinary care as soon as possible.
The best way to deal with canine distemper is to prevent it altogether. The way to do this is by vaccination which stimulates the immune system to be able to handle and eliminate the virus. The success rate of giving a live vaccine is about 100% and giving the killed vaccine produces about 80% success. Giving the live vaccine can have some more side effects especially in dogs that already have a suppressed immune system. In order to prevent over-vaccination, titers may be drawn to measure the level of immunity already present against distemper.
In all cases it is best to trust the dog to the care of a compassionate veterinarian that has years of study and experience as well as knowledge of your particular dog’s condition. A good relationship with a veterinarian is the best way to keep your dog healthy. Also as always, a 1800Petmeds pharmacist is available to answer any medication related questions that you may have.