It must be stated at the outset that if, at any time, the owner suspects that his animal has distemper, no effort at home treatment or nursing should be made. The dog distemper cases should immediately be taken to a veterinarian and should be put under strict veterinary supervision during the entire course of the disease.
Distemper is by far the worst disease of dogs. Of all the dogs that die during the first two years of life, probably ninety-five per cent will die of distemper alone.
Among domestic animals, distemper is exclusively a disease of dogs. It is caused by an extremely potent filterable virus, and the extent of the disease is world-wide.
The disease may be transmitted by direct contact with infected dogs or indirectly by contact with dogs, persons, or places that have been exposed to the infection. It is not transmissible to man. The virus is everywhere. It is in the air, on the ground, on people’s clothes; it is truly omnipresent. No dog is safe from its ravages.
When distemper first strikes, the primary manifestations are depression, loss of appetite, and high temperature. These symptoms are often overlooked by the owner, and the general feeling usually is that the animal is somehow indisposed.
These symptoms last only about two days. Then the virus causes a breakdown of the resistance of the various systems of the body, and a burst of complicating infections results, which give rise to a large variety of secondary symptoms. It is by these secondary symptoms that distemper is commonly characterized. Only the major ones will be considered here because these are the ones that will generally be recognized by the owner.
The most prominent and constant secondary symptom of dog distemper is a discharge from the eyes which usually starts as a watery exudation and changes in a few days to a dense, whitish, mucous-like accumulation.
Often the discharge is so copious that the eyelids stick together, and after the discharge is wiped away the eye membranes appear to have an angry, red aspect.
There may be occasional vomiting. A very common symptom is diarrhea, which may become increasingly severe and bloody as the disease progresses. A watery and, later, a mucous or pus-like nasal discharge is also very characteristic, and this will often be accompanied by rubbing of the nose.
Very commonly, too, there is a cough; characteristically this is steady and mild, but there may be occasional paroxysms which often end up in gagging and vomiting.
Where the nervous system is involved, there may be twitch-ings of the face, head, and neck, but most often in the limbs.
In severe cases there may be intermittent convulsions, characterized by champing of the teeth, foaming at the mouth, falling on the side, violent shaking movements all over the body, involuntary passage of stool, urine, or both and hysterical running and barking. These convulsions may lead to partial or complete paralysis, but more often they gradually increase in frequency and lead to coma and death.
The skin may also show various manifestations. There may appear small, red spots around the face, eyes, internal surface of the ears or thighs, or on the abdomen. These red spots may become further irritated, swell, and fill with pus and rupture, thereby giving the animal an offensive odor and a scabby form of skin irritation.
Along with these specific symptoms, the animal may show marked temperature variations, variable appetite, intermittent seizures of depression, and any or most of the general signs of disease that were described earlier.
In treating a dog with distemper, the most potent drugs and expert nursing are required—strictly a veterinary problem. Where only the digestive or respiratory systems are primarily affected, about fifty per cent of the cases survive. Where the nervous system is involved, and especially where convulsions have appeared, ninety-nine per cent of the cases will die. The entire course of the disease usually lasts from six to ten weeks.
To combat this frightful scourge, the veterinary profession has devised a very effective method of immunization. This protection should be the first concern of the new dog owner. If he chooses to do nothing more, his dog should at least be afforded the benefit of protection against distemper.
The dog acquires a certain amount of protection from its mother. This protection usually lasts until the animal is about nine weeks old. At this age, some veterinarians proceed directly with the permanent immunization.
Other veterinarians prefer a later age at which to give the permanent vaccinations, and in the meantime advise injecting puppies with distemper serum, which consists of secretory and excretory products of the distemper virus and confers a temporary immunity of from one to two weeks (though veterinarians in general place less confidence in serum than they used to.)
The dog distemper serum injections are given every one or two weeks until the animal is four months of age or older. Then the animal is given three injections of distemper vaccine, each two weeks apart. Distemper vaccine consists of dead distemper germ. When these three injections are completed, the animal is considered to be protected against the disease for life. The efficiency of this protection is very high and is generally considered to be in the neighborhood of ninety-five per cent.
There are many modifications of this procedure. Some veterinarians prefer to give two injections of distemper vaccine and one of live distemper virus. Others prefer variants of this method. But, as a general rule, most veterinarians use the three-distemper-vaccine method. It is a safe, cautious and proven method of immunization.
Recently, a new method has been devised whereby very young puppies (as young as nine weeks of age) may be given a single vaccination that confers immunity for life. The material injected consists of a form of live virus from which the disease-producing power has been eliminated by various means. This method is quickly winning favor among impressive numbers of veterinarians.
When it was first produced, it was not without its shortcomings. Considerable caution had to be exercised in its use and disastrous results were occasionally reported in the literature. However, rapid progress has been made and the shortcomings of this single-injection method have been almost entirely eliminated. It is already apparent that if the current wave of popularity continues at its present rate, it will become officially recognized as the best method in the eradication of dogdom’s worst affliction.
The Distemper Complex
In recent years, veterinarians have come to recognize a whole series of diseases that are closely related to and scarcely distinguishable from distemper itself. These are the diseases of the distemper complex. Their detailed discussion would be useless here.
However it is well to interpolate this note because the subtlety of distinction has been such as occasionally to confuse the dog owner. This is nothing strange since the status of our knowledge on this point is also confused. One veterinarian will call a particular disease dog distemper while another will disagree.
This is not the place to say which one is correct. They may both be right. But it is unlikely that they are both wrong. In the face of such complexity, the owner should permit free and open consultation among veterinarians concerning this problem and not consider any difference of opinion as a proper reason for mistrust in the profession.