Distemper and Rabies

In honor of Nation Immunization Awareness Month, we want to encourage you to discuss vaccinations with your veterinarian. We have heard about a reemergence of distemper due to pets not being vaccinated, and rabies is always a concern.  Not sure exactly what these diseases are? Read more:

Distemper: Canine distemper is a contagious and serious viral illness with no known cure. The virus can be spread through the air and by direct or indirect contact with an infected animal. Initially, the virus will attack a dog’s tonsils and lymph nodes and then will replicate itself there for about one week at which point it will start to attack the respiratory, urogenital, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. Distemper is often nicknamed the “hard pad disease” because of its ability to cause an abnormal enlargement or thickening of the pads of the animal’s feet.

The disease primarily affects dogs and certain species of wildlife such as wolves, foxes, raccoons and skunks. The common house pet, the ferret, is also a carrier of this virus. Young, unvaccinated puppies, and non-immunized older dogs, tend to be more susceptible to the disease. Early symptoms are fever, watery discharge from the nose and eyes along with ocular redness. The dog will often appear lethargic and/or tired, will typically not be interested in eating and develop a persistent cough. They will often also develop persistent GI signs including vomiting and diarrhea. Eventually, the dog’s nervous system will be affected resulting in symptoms such as seizures, paralysis and behavior changes such as hysteria.

Distemper can be diagnosed via blood work and urinalysis along with other differential diagnostics. Again, unfortunately there is no cure for canine distemper. Treatment for the disease is heavily focused on alleviating the symptoms. Your dog’s chances for surviving canine distemper will depend on the strain of the virus and the strength of your dog’s immune system. Although recovery is entirely possible, seizures and other fatal disturbances to the central nervous system can develop several months post recovery. Interestingly, fully recovered dogs do not spread or carry the virus.

Rabies: Rabies is a severe and fast-acting viral polioencephalitis that specifically affects the gray matter of the dog’s brain and central nervous system. This virus is often fatal and is zoonotic which means that it can be passed from animals to humans. In the U.S., the most common way the rabies virus is transmitted to dogs is through a bite from a disease-carrying animal including foxes, raccoons, skunks and bats. Infectious virus particles are housed in a rabid animal’s salivary glands to better disseminate the virus through their saliva. Also, it very rarely can be transmitted through breathing in the escaping gasses from decomposing animal carcasses which can be a concern for hunting dogs.

Once the virus enters the dog’s body, it replicates in the muscle cells and then spreads to the nerve fibers, including all peripheral, sensory and motor nerves. It then spreads to the central nervous system via the fluid within the nerves. The virus can take up to a month to develop, but once the symptoms have started the virus progresses rapidly and develops in one of two forms. The paralytic form and the furious form; early symptoms last from one to three days and then most dogs will progress to either the furious stage, the paralytic stage, or a combination of the two, while others succumb to the infection without displaying any major symptoms.

Furious rabies is characterized by extreme behavioral changes, including overt aggression and “attack” behavior. Paralytic rabies is characterized by weakness, loss of coordination and paralysis. If the virus is not treated soon after the symptoms have begun, prognosis is very poor. Therefore, if your dog has been in a fight with another animal, or has been bitten or scratched by another animal, or if you have any reason to suspect that your pet has come into contact with a rabid animal (even if your pet has been vaccinated against the virus), you must take your dog to a veterinarian for preventive care immediately.

Symptoms of rabies can include; fever, seizures, pica, paralysis, hydrophobia (extreme or irrational fear of water), jaw appears dropped, lack of muscular coordination, changes in behavior such as unusual shyness or aggression, excessive excitability, constant irritability/changes as well as paralysis in the mandible and larynx resulting in an inability to swallow and a change in tone of a bark, excessive salivation (hypersalivation) or frothy salivation.

If you suspect your dog has rabies, call your veterinarian immediately. If it is safe to do so, place your dog in a kennel and take it to a veterinarian to be quarantined. If your pet is behaving in a way that you feel you are at risk of being bitten or scratched, for your safety you should contact animal control to catch your dog for you. Quarantine is done by housing the dog in a locked cage for 10 days and being monitored by a veterinary professional. Quarantine is the only appropriate method for confirming suspected rabies infection as blood testing for the virus is not common veterinary procedure. Unfortunately, diagnosis in the U.S. is done using a post-mortem direct fluorescence antibody test performed by a state-approved laboratory for rabies diagnosis.