When I was in veterinary school and learning about canine distemper virus (CDV), the “sound bite” that I filed away in my memory was “respiratory and GI signs in a poorly vaccinated dog — don’t forget distemper.” I figured this knowledge would be sufficient since preventative vaccination has been so effective that distemper seemed to be becoming a relic of the past.


Not so fast.


This summer, a wild animal sanctuary outside of Dallas was hit hard by the disease. Last I heard, 22 lions, tigers, and leopards had tested positive for CDV and 7 had died (yes, other species can come down with the virus, including big cats [not housecats], ferrets, raccoons, wolves, coyotes, skunks, and fox). That outbreak appears to be over, but now the city of Amarillo is under siege.


According to newschannel10.com, an area veterinarian says he has diagnosed approximately 200 dogs with distemper since June. "We're probably seeing 10 to 15 a week," said Dr. David Faulkner at Hope Veterinary Clinic.


I can’t even fathom what this must be like. Canine distemper is highly contagious, potentially fatal, and treatment is pretty much limited to supportive and symptomatic care — your basic nightmare scenario.


Early symptoms look like those seen with many respiratory infections:

  • fever
  • poor appetite
  • runny eyes and nose
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing


Vomiting and diarrhea tend to develop next.


Then things can get really bad. The virus may invade the central nervous system. Once tremors, problems with balance, and seizures (often starting with jaw snapping) start, the chances that a dog will be able to recover dramatically decline. Some dogs also develop a characteristic thickening of the skin covering the nose and footpads.


Diagnosing canine distemper usually starts with a basic health work up (e.g., complete blood cell count, blood chemistry tests, urinalysis, and fecal examination), possibly X-rays, and often a test for canine parvovirus (CPV) since many of the symptoms of CDV and CPV are similar. Tests for the virus itself are available but are best run once a veterinarian has ruled out more common diseases and/or has a strong suspicion that a dog has canine distemper.


As I said previously, treatment for canine distemper is primarily supportive. Our goal is to keep the patient alive long enough for his or her immune system to eliminate the virus. Care may include intravenous fluids, nutritional support, antibiotics to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections, therapies to ease breathing, and medications to control fever, vomiting, and seizures.


What I find most heartbreaking about the current situation in Texas is that dogs are becoming sick and dying from a preventable disease. Current canine distemper vaccines are extremely safe and effective. Puppies generally should be vaccinated against CDV starting around 8 weeks of age, receive boosters every 3-4 weeks until they are 12-16 weeks of age, and then get a booster one year after their last “puppy shot.” Dogs over 16 weeks of age with a no vaccine history get good protection after just one CDV vaccine. After their initial vaccine(s), dogs should either be revaccinated for distemper or have their vaccine titers checked every three years.


The outbreak in Amarillo should prod us all to take a moment to confirm that our dogs are protected against canine distemper.


Dr. Jennifer Coates


Image: Pakawat Suwannaket / Shutterstock