Q&A on distemper

Questions and answers for people who have not experienced canine distemper. These are based on questions I’ve been asked over the years. Post your own questions as a comment.

So, canine distemper, that’s like rabies, right?


Rabies and distemper are separate diseases caused by different viruses.

“Rabies is spread by infected saliva that enters the body through a bite or broken skin. The virus travels from the wound to the brain, where it causes swelling, or inflammation. This inflammation leads to symptoms of the disease. Most rabies deaths occur in children.” [PubMed Health.]

Distemper is often spread through the aerosol discharge from the nose of an infected animal. It does not transmit from dog to human the way that rabies does. It also does not increase the anxiety, stress and aggressiveness of the victim. Both diseases include seizures among their symptoms, but while rabies is a threat to humans, canine distemper only attacks dogs. The distemper virus affects every system and every organ of the dog. The symptoms of the early stages of distemper include a gunky/runny nose, dry eyes, dry/cracking nose, dry/cracking pads of feet, vomiting and diarrhea and fever. In the latter stage, the virus attacks the nervous system, causing seizures. However, the disease does not attack every dog the same way. So, symptoms don’t come in the same order.

I heard the only way you can be sure it’s distemper is when you see seizures.

No, there are ways to tell. And you don’t want to wait that long. That’s the stage where it is hardest to save the animal’s life. One way to diagnose distemper is by checking the cells of the bladder through what is called a Brush Border Smear. There is also a new lab test that can tell the difference between antibodies from an active infection rather than from a vaccination.

What’s it like to have canine distemper?

I recently asked Dr. Al Sears this question, and this is what he had to say:

“Have you ever had the flu? You’re dizzy. You sit up, and you get dizzy. You’ve got diarrhea. You’re vomiting. You can’t eat. You can’t drink anything. You’ve got a fever. You’re sweating. You’re laying there in bed, just wishing you could die. How does that feel? The difference for dogs is the majority of them go on to stop breathing. When you have a real bad case of the flu, you almost wish that would happen. That’s basically how I’m sure how those dogs feel. I’m sure in an acute case, they wish they were dead. I’m sure the majority of them go on to die, but that’s only because of organ failure. God, it affects every organ of the body practically. …  Your eyes are all full of mucous. You can’t see. Are those dogs comfortable? No they’re miserable. They’re in severe pain and they don’t like what’s going on. They’re hurting. …  You can have hardpad, which makes it almost impossible for the dog to walk. Consider somebody shaving off all the skin on the base of your foot and then ask you to walk across the room. You can’t do it. Think about the dog that gets bad teeth, loses all the enamel on their teeth …  Or the ones that lose their ability to make tears, so they can’t even blink. These are all secondary problems that occur.”

Why worry about canine distemper? I thought there was a vaccine to take care of that.

There is a vaccine that can prevent the disease, first developed in 1950, but the disease continues. Without an accepted treatment, unvaccinated dogs still get sick and die. There are hotspots of distemper all over the world. In the U.S., it is most common in the South and West. It keeps spreading because of outbreaks in shelters, hitting stray dogs and puppies. Contact with wildlife also spreads the disease. But nobody seems to be keeping statistics on the disease, so no one really knows how big a problem there is. But we’ve received thousands of e-mails from hundreds of people begging for help from around the world. We’ve maintained a page on stats that we have tracked through our site.

Why should I care if strays and shelter dogs get distemper?

Because you, or someone you love or someone in your community, may someday fall in love with a stray or a shelter dog. It happens. [That’s what happened with me.] People bring home a dog that seems healthy, fall in love with it, and the children in the home get attached, all before the first symptoms hit. Eventually, a vet may make the diagnosis of distemper, and it hits with the finality of a death sentence. But then, owners are told that a few dogs might survive. This gives a false sense of hope, and they struggle to save their pet with the accepted protocols — antibiotics, fluids and supportive therapy — but to no avail. The animal dies after the family has gone through hell — and a lot of money — to save their pet. We believe they could have been spared the pain, misery and financial expense with an early diagnosis and a vet who had a ready supply of NDV-induced serum.

I don’t hear about distemper in my community. So, it’s not a problem here.

Distemper can crop up literally anywhere. For example, it is not very common in the Northeast. But in the past three years, we have received requests for help on distemper cases in Buffalo, Syracuse, Scranton, Pa., New Jersey and the New York City area. Unfortunately, vets in the Northeast have been very reluctant to try the NDV treatments, and we have yet to save a dog in the Northeast. Eventually, it can come to your town.

I thought only puppies get distemper

No, it can hit any unvaccinated dog, at any age.

I read on the Internet that there is no cure, and no absolutely no proof that NDV can cure dogs of distemper.

It’s accurate to say the treatment has not been proven. But all we are asking for is a chance to prove that it does work. This is a new way to fight disease. When Edward Jenner injected cowpox into an 8-year-old boy in 1796, he had no guarantee that it would save him from smallpox. When it did, it opened up new possibilities in fighting disease. Alexander Fleming did the same thing in 1928 when he discovered penicillin when his lab samples were accidentally contaminated with mold. Dr. Sears’ protocol may have unlocked a new weapon against a disease, even though we don’t know what it is or how it works, yet.

Ed Bond

Oct. 25, 2011

Have more questions on distemper? Please post in the comments below, and we’ll answer them here.

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