Does Distemper still exist?

Sadly yes, distemper is still present – and potentially deadly – in the UK. In other countries, where a much smaller percentage of dogs are vaccinated, it is much more common (for example in Finland distemper is still a significant cause of death for dogs). 

So what is distemper?

Distemper is a viral disease of dogs. It is closely related to several other diseases including Seal Distemper (in seals, unsurprisingly), Rinderpest (in cattle) and  Measles.

How is it spread?

By droplets in the air containing body fluids – faeces or diarrhoea, vomit, urine or even air breathed out by an infected dog or fox. Once inhaled or ingested by another dog, the virus invades the dog’s lymphatic system and spreads throughout the body.

Fortunately, the virus does not survive well in the environment and is killed by most disinfectants and cleaning agents.

What dogs are at risk?

Any unvaccinated dog is at risk of Distemper. The incubation period is about one week, and once infected, most dogs will develop disease to some extent. However, how severely they will be affected will depend on how rapidly, and how effectively, their immune system responds. If it responds fast and well, they may only suffer subclinical disease (mild, non-specific signs), whereas if it doesn’t respond properly, or is very slow, then the full-blown disease will result. Of course, many dogs’ immune systems will fall somewhere between these extremes, giving a range of severities.

So what are the symptoms?

The typical progression of symptoms is:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy, loss of appetite (in subacute disease, symptoms may stop here)
  • A runny nose and eyes
  • Intermittent fever
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • A cough and difficulty breathing
  • Changes in behaviour (e.g. stupor or hysteria)
  • Wobbliness and/or seizures
  • Paralysis
  • Inflammation of the eyes, sometimes proceeding to blindness
  • Thickening and hardening of the foot pads and nose (hence the old name, “Hardpad”).

Other complications are common, typically secondary bacterial infections, such as pneumonia. Some dogs will apparently make a recovery, but then months or years later will develop brain problems (“Old Dog Encephalitis”).

It sounds nasty, but how serious is it?

Estimates for mortality suggest that between 20 and 50% of infected dogs will die. It really is that bad. The only good news is that dogs who are infected and recover usually have a very good immunity to the disease for some years afterwards, and possibly for life.

What about people – can we get it?

There is evidence that people can contract it, especially if they are very old, very young, or have a weakened immune system (e.g. due to disease, chemotherapy, or pregnancy). Fortunately, however, the disease is usually less serious in humans, and in any case the measles vaccine gives good protection.

Can it be treated?

Basically, no – there is no specific treatment for Distemper virus. Infected dogs will get full supportive therapy (intensive care nursing, anti-inflammatories to control the fever, antibiotics to control secondary infection, intravenous fluids), and medications to control the symptoms (e.g. antiemetics to stop the vomiting, anticonvulsants to stop seizures), but whether they live or not will depend to a great degree on how well their own immune system meets the challenge.

How can it be prevented?

Very easily – vaccinate your dog. And, just as importantly, make sure he gets his boosters on time! The Distemper component of modern vaccines lasts for quite a long time, so this vaccine doesn’t need to be repeated annually. However, don’t just do the primary puppy course and forget about it – it does need to be boosted at one year old, and then every three years, or the protection will drop and your dog will be at risk.

If you are concerned about Distemper, contact one of our vets for advice.