27th Sep, 2018

We recently adopted a little pup from our local shelter and we’re totally smitten. We’ve called her Mischief, and she’s living up to her name! However, we’ve been hearing about outbreaks of distemper in our town, and although our baby has been vaccinated, we can’t help but still worry.

What symptoms do we look out for? And is distemper treatable (or, more so, curable)? Is there anything else we can do to ensure that our new family member remains safe and healthy?

Brenda Howie, KZN

Dr Mirjam van der Wel answers…

How wonderful that you have adopted your new family member and that she’s already an important member of your household!

Your concern about distemper is justified; it really is a very unpleasant and often deadly virus. The good news is: your pup has been vaccinated, which means the chances of her ever catching this disease are very slim.

What causes Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper disease is caused by a virus that’s very contagious and spreads very rapidly.

An infected dog sheds the virus via bodily secretions (discharge from eyes and nose, blood, urine).

Dogs usually become infected through airborne exposure to the virus (coughing or sneezing) from an infected animal.

A dog can also catch the virus through sharing of food and water bowls and a contaminated environment with shared toys and blankets. Pregnant females pass the virus to their offspring via the placenta.

Humans don’t get infected with distemper virus, but wild animals like jackals, foxes, raccoons, ferrets and wolves, as well as big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards can also catch the distemper virus. In wild animals the disease closely resembles rabies.

What does it look like?

It generally takes one to two weeks (the incubation period) between catching the virus and the dog showing the first signs of illness.

These signs are often very non-specific: the dog may be listless, be off its food and run a fever for a few days. Some dogs develop an immunity to the virus at this point and that’s that.

Other dogs are not so lucky. The virus affects their immune system and they’ll go on to show further signs of illness. These can include vomiting and diarrhoea, a cough (pneumonia is a serious possible complication and cause of death in distemper virus infection), a snotty nose and infected eyes.

In certain cases, the virus spreads to the brain and the dog can start having seizures (fits), become uncoordinated and sometimes go blind. Some dogs develop very distinct tics (twitches of the muscles on the head that make it look like the dog is “chewing gum”).

During the course of the illness, some dogs may develop thickened, hardened paw pads, which is why Canine Distemper is sometimes called hard pad disease.

Dogs that do survive often go on to have long-term health issues including twitches, seizures, or lameness.

Can you treat it?

There’s no cure for distemper. All treatments are symptomatic (supportive) and there to help fight and prevent secondary infections. These treatments can include intravenous fluids, medication to stop the vomiting and nausea, antibiotic treatments to prevent secondary bacterial infections, and medication to control the seizures.

Despite all this, many animals die or may be put to sleep to end further suffering because the outlook is so grim. Young pups are at particular risk, as are immune-compromised and elderly dogs

In a nutshell, distemper is not a disease you want to have to cure; it’s a disease you want to prevent at all costs.

And, fortunately, vaccination is an amazing tool! Please contact your local vet for advice regarding vaccination – they will be happy to assist.

Vaccinations and vet visits

Vaccination isn’t just important to prevent distemper, but also a number of other diseases, including rabies and canine parvo virus (also misleadingly known as “Cat-flu” or “Kat-griep” here in South Africa).

Vaccinations usually require more than one injection, given at specific time intervals.

In many cases, the dog will have had one vaccination prior to being rehomed from the shelter. Your dog is protected when you adopt it, but further vaccinations may be necessary to ensure life-long protection.

I would recommend you take your pup to your local vet as soon as possible to see if and when it needs any boosters. And don’t forget to bring its vaccination card!

Other things to do for your new pup to ensure she stays healthy include regular deworming with a good product from your vet (and not some powder you bought at your local supermarket!) and food that’s appropriate for the type of dog you have and its age.

You can also ask your vet about getting your dog sterilised. Sterilisation is not just about preventing pregnancy, it can help with a number of potential health and behavioural issues.

And try to ensure that any dog Mischief comes into direct contact with is also vaccinated and healthy, and avoid letting her roam freely outside your yard.

Prevention is better than cure, so visit your vet to make sure. Here’s hoping that you and Mischief have a long and healthy life together!