Canine Distemper Virus

by Brigitte Smith

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is a virus that causes a highly contagious disease in dogs known as Distemper.  Dogs with distemper suffer damage to their gastrointestinal, central nervous and respiratory systems.  Distemper is incurable and can often be fatal.

Young puppies, between the ages of three and six months, are most susceptible to distemper, although older dogs and other types of carnivorous mammals can also contract this disease.  In the past, Distemper was the leading cause of death among puppies who had not been vaccinated.  Since the Distemper vaccine was created in the early 1960s, the incidence of Distemper and Distemper-related deaths has dropped considerably.

The canine distemper virus is transmitted via airborne viral particles and is inhaled by the dog.  An infected dog sheds the virus through bodily secretions and excretions, so it is easy for an infected dog to cause the infection of another dog.  That's why Distemper is so highly contagious.

Distemper causes diverse symptoms that include both respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, and also result in central nervous system disorders.  Dogs who die after contracting Distemper invariably die from either secondary bacterial infections, or from central nervous system complications caused by the disease.

Distemper can be difficult for your vet to diagnose, because blood tests fail to  detect the presence of CDV.  Diagnosis often relies on ruling out other disorders whose symptoms are similar to those of the canine distemper virus. 

Because there is no cure for distemper, treatment for the disease is supportive.  A vet will attempt to treat the symptoms insofar as possible.  A clean, warm, and draft free environment should be created and maintained to ensure the affected dog is as comfortable as possible.  The eyes and nose should be kept free of discharge, and medication to treat diarrhea should be administered.  Dogs suffering from distemper need plenty of fluids to help reduce fever and prevent dehydration. 

Like any viral disease, prevention is an eminently preferable (and more successful) option than treatment, so the best option known to medical science at the present time is vaccination during the early weeks of life.

The distemper vaccination creates a long lasting immunity to the virus, but at what stage the immunity is permanent is the subject of some debate.  Most puppies are given vaccinations that include distemper vaccine along with vaccines for several other diseases. Annual inoculations are routinely recommended to maintain a dog’s immunity to disease, but the efficacy of this practise is questionable.  It is now widely accepted that annual inoculations are NOT required once a dog passes into adulthood, but the practise of annual vaccinations is still very widespread.  For further information on the dangerous practise of annual vaccinations for your dog, see Immune Support for Pets

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