Distemper is a highly contagious viral disease that infects dogs, ferrets, raccoons, coyotes, wolves and other animals. The distemper virus does not infect domestic cats, but has been found to infect the larger cats, such as lions. The virus is secreted through secretions from the nose and mouth and spread by the coughing and sneezing of infected animals. Once exposed, the virus attacks many organs, such as the lungs, the intestinal tract and eventually will attack the nervous system resulting in muscle twitches, convulsions and eventually death.
The first signs of the disease are usually a thick, yellow nasal discharge, a yellow eye discharge and coughing. Most people think that these signs are just the result of a “cold” and can sometimes go away. However, in most dogs, the virus hasn’t really gone away, but has moved on to the other organs causing damage. If it attacks the intestinal tract, the signs could be vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss. As the disease progresses, it travels to the nervous system causing muscle tremors, twitches, and eventually seizures. Once it attacks the nervous system and the seizures develop, most animals will either die or have to be euthanized. Some dogs can recover, but may have persistent nervous muscular twitches (chorea) , recurrent seizures and thickening of the pads of the feet (hard pad disease).
There is no effective treatment of the distemper virus. Antibiotics can sometimes help with secondary bacterial infections. Other symptomatic treatment can be given to help with the cough and diarrhea. Anti-seizure drugs do not seem to help with controlling the seizures.
Distemper can infect old dogs as well as young and the only way to fully protect your pet is with vaccinations. If the mother dog has been vaccinated, she will pass some protective antibiodies to her puppies in the colostrum (first milk) during the first 24 hours that the puppy nurses. These anti-bodies provide some protection against the distemper virus for 2 to 16 weeks, depending on the level of anti-bodies received and other factors. A series of vaccinations are then given to the puppy starting around 6 weeks of age and given every 2 to 4 weeks, to help the puppy make his own antibodies to protect him from the disease. Your vet will help you with the vaccination schedule for optimum vaccination protection.
Older dogs can get a yearly booster, then either get boosters every year or can use the 3 year vaccination.