Distemper is the greatest scourge of our canine population, not only accounting for a large number of deaths yearly but rendering many dogs useless for work.

The tendency of some books dealing with the subject to indicate several different varieties of the disease, and deal with them as such, is quite wrong.

Actually, all these different forms are due to the invasion of other organisms, after the animal’s resistance has been weakened by the virus of distemper.

Research work carried out by The Field Newspaper (England) established the cause to be a specific filterable virus, the course of the ensuing disease being modified by the subsequent invasion of the body by different organisms of varying virulence.

Under natural conditions, the disease may be transmitted by direct or indirect contact. Infection probably takes place through the air passages.

A very important factor to recognize is that bedding, kennels, etc., remain infective after contact with the virus for at least a month.

The knowledge that distemper is an airborne disease is of the greatest importance, for it shows that dog owners cannot afford to take dogs into their kennels without a preliminary period of quarantine.

That period of isolation must be under conditions which preclude the possibility of infection by air.

Distemper Symptoms

In the experimental work, distemper was found to be an acute infectious fever characterized by an incubation period of four days, a cold in the head, a temperature which rises abruptly to 105 degrees F, at which level it remains for 24 to 48 hours.

It then drops to normal for one or two days, followed by a second more gradual but usually much more prolonged rise to 105 degrees F, or more.

The duration of the second rise may be as long as three weeks.

With the initial rise of temperature, there is a severe gastrointestinal disturbance, and a variable set of symptoms due to inflammation of the respiratory system. There is also a profuse watery discharge from the eyes and nose.

Within 24 hours this discharge becomes thick and purulent and collects in a dirty crust around the nose and eyes, with acutely inflamed eyelids.

Directly the temperature rises, dogs refuse food and periodically vomit. After the temperature drops at the end of 24 to 48 hours, the dog starts to eat till the second rise of temperature occurs.

With this rise of temperature, we get a second refusal of food, and the dog starts to waste until he becomes very thin.

During the whole period of illness diarrhea is present, becoming profuse, slimy, evil-smelling and often streaked with blood. Diarrhea may persist for days after the disappearance of the fever.

In experimental distemper interference with the respiratory system is usually slight. The increase of respiration due to fever and a slight cough is all that is noted.

As against that, we often get extensive pneumonia as well as a pustular skin condition.

Dog distemper is an acute infective fever, comparable in many respects with measles or influenza in human beings.

These diseases, by themselves, will induce a severe fever and serious bodily disturbance, but are rarely fatal and yet are very liable to light up a latent infection or expose the patient to secondary infections of various kinds.

This conception of experimental distemper is of great importance because the results of research work in the past must be discounted by the confusion of diseased conditions, purely secondary in nature, with true distemper.

Care and Cleanliness

The knowledge that distemper is not by itself a fatal disease, and that deaths are mostly due to secondary infections, can be best applied by making every endeavor to keep dogs showing symptoms of distemper under the best hygienic conditions.

A sick dog, instead of being kept in a dirty kennel on old pieces of dirty rugs or bags, should be placed in scrupulously clean quarters, with plenty of fresh air and sunshine.

Kennels should be scrubbed out with disinfectants, clean bedding should be provided, and the food given should be in clean vessels.

Water also in clean vessels should be renewed frequently, and not left polluted with the discharge from the nose and mouth.

If distemper occurs in a kennel where a number of dogs are kept, the healthy dogs should be removed and placed in fresh quarters.

Both the sick dog and the quarters in which it has been kept are capable of infecting healthy dogs.

The disease usually takes from two to four weeks to run its course, but everything depends on the nature of the complications as to how long a time will elapse before the dog can be considered better.

Distemper is considered peculiar to the dog, but there is evidence that the same or a very similar disease attacks other carnivorous animals. Cats and ferrets may also be affected.

Dogs of any age may contract the disease, but as a general rule, young animals between the ages of three and 12 months are most susceptible.

See: Caring for Your Dogs and Cats

Complications May Follow

Incorrect feeding and bad management predispose to infection. As already indicated, many complications attend or follow attacks of distemper.

In some cases cerebral congestion arises and is shown by excitement or even convulsions (fits).

The animal falls down as if affected with epilepsy, yelps, foams at the mouth, rolls on its side, becomes unconscious and shows spasmodic contractions of the muscles generally.

Urine and feces are passed quite involuntarily. These convulsions only last for a few minutes, but they tend to recur at increasingly frequent intervals.

Paralysis may follow the convulsions, or may develop simultaneously; it may only affect a limb, or it may be fairly general.

Chorea (St. Vitus Dance) is a very common sequel to distemper. With this the symptoms are twitching of individual muscles, or of whole limbs or the head and neck, or of practically the whole of the body.

In the early stages of this condition, apart from the twitchings, the animal appears in quite good health.

As the condition progresses, however, there comes a time when the dog is unable to rest, the appetite fails, and loss of condition and weakness results.

Prevention of canine distemper

For the prevention of canine distemper, the laboratories issue a canine distemper virus (living).

This product exerts its immunizing effect by producing in the susceptible dog an actual attack of the disease, which may be controlled and rendered mild by the prompt administration of the companion product (canine anti-distemper serum).

The best age at which to carry out immunization is when pups are three to four months old. Puppies to be immunized must be quite healthy. They should be freed from worms and external parasites and should be in good condition.

The immunization of a single animal presents no difficulty, provided due care is taken that the pup is healthy to begin with, and the correct dose is used.

Immunization of dogs can be strongly recommended, but the process must be in the hands of a veterinary surgeon, who will see that the dog is properly cared for.


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