Distemper in the local area

Bridger Vet Clinic would like their clients to be aware that distemper has been diagnosed in the town of Bridger in a raccoon that was found showing symptoms in the local park. The animal was euthanized and sent to the diagnostic laboratory for testing. It was found to be negative for rabies but POSITIVE for distemper. We would therefore like to share some information that will help the community protect their pets from contracting the disease.

What is distemper?

Distemper is a contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. The virus can be found in wildlife such as foxes, wolves, coyotes, raccoons and skunks to name but a few, but can also spread to domestic animals such as dogs and cats (Panleukopenia).

How is canine distemper spread?

Domestic animals most often become infected through airborne exposure (sneezing or coughing) to the virus from an infected animal. It can also be transmitted by shared food or water bowls and in blood or saliva. Infected animals can shed the virus for months, and mother animals can pass the virus to their offspring. Since canine distemper also impacts wildlife populations, contact between wild animals and domestic dogs can help spread the virus. Canine distemper outbreaks in local raccoon populations can signal increased risk for pet dogs in the area as is currently the case.

What dogs are at risk?

All dogs are at risk, but puppies younger than four months old and dogs that have not been vaccinated against canine distemper are at increased risk of acquiring the disease.

What are the symptoms of canine distemper?

Initially, infected dogs will develop discharge from their eyes. They can then develop fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite, and vomiting. As the virus attacks the nervous system, infected dogs develop circling behavior, head tilt, muscle twitches, convulsions with jaw-chewing movements, seizures, and partial or complete paralysis. In wildlife, infection with canine distemper closely resembles rabies. Distemper is often fatal, and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous-system damage.

How is canine distemper diagnosed and treated?

Your vet can diagnose distemper through clinical appearance and laboratory testing.  There is no cure for canine distemper infection.  Treatment typically consists of supportive care and efforts to prevent secondary infections; control vomiting, diarrhea, and neurologic symptoms; and combat dehydration through administration of fluids. Dogs infected with canine distemper should be separated from other dogs to minimize the risk of further infection. 

How is canine distemper prevented?

Vaccination is crucial in preventing canine distemper.

  • A series of vaccinations is administered to puppies to increase the likelihood of building immunity when the immune system has not yet fully matured, then an annual vaccine is all that is required.
  • Avoid gaps in the immunization schedule and make sure distemper vaccinations are up to date.
  • Avoid contact with infected animals and wildlife.
  • Use caution when socializing puppies or unvaccinated dogs at parks, obedience classes, doggy day care, and other places where dogs can congregate.

If you have any questions please contact Bridger Vet Clinic at (406)-662-3335 or the Carbon County Public Health Department at (406) 446-9941.