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articles treatment for distemper in dogs

Fran, a beautiful dog, came down with distemper; even though, she had been vaccinated. She was living with her foster parent’s house when the unimaginable happened.

Her ordeal, and, her progress, as she continues to fight to gain strength, is a story of a distemper survivor and the determination of her foster mom to never give up.
The best prevention against canine distemper (CDV) is vaccination. Vaccination works well even in animals that have already been exposed to the virus; if it is administered within 4 days of exposure. Exposure to CDV via vaccination induces long lasting, but not permanent, immunity. Dogs should receive annual vaccinations to ensure protection.¹

Earnest and Fran were typical Bostons...cute, full of energy and absolutely adorable. Their foster parents were excited at the thought of watching them grow together even if it might not be long. They knew that puppies get adopted faster than older dogs even as young as Fran. This was the first time they had fostered a puppy. They had been fostering Fran for a while, when they agreed to bring in Earnest.


th2But 4 days later, Earnest seemed to have less energy, he wasn't eating with as much gusto, Their foster parents became worried that Earnest was getting dehydrated. He developed diarrhea. It would not clear up, and of course it was a weekend.  On Monday he was taken to the Animal clinic, one of the vets the organization used. They(the vet) was concerned enough that they kept him for a few days, with an IV to get him re-hydrated. The foster parents brought him back home and he seemed better, although now he had some green eye goop...looked like the beginning of an eye infection.

But that was just the start, now Fran was burning up. She was radiating heat and the foster parents didn't need a thermometer to tell she was running a fever. Tuesday the foster parents took her to their vet, at the Animal Hospital, along with Earnest so they could look at his eye infection. Tests were run, x-rays taken to rule out a blockage. No diagnosis for Fran. The vet, however, cautioned the foster parents about Earnest’s eye infection.   "It could be a sign of distemper" she said, “so keep a watch on him”.  She then explained that the distemper vaccination was very effective, and as Fran had been vaccinated, there was nothing to be concerned about. OH How wrong we were!

Fran was put on antibiotics and prednisone to help reduce the fever. A normal dog temps are somewhere in the 101 degree range.   Fran's was spiking as high as 103 to 104 degrees. Any dog that is suspected of being infected should be isolated from other dogs.

NOTE: Canine Distemper (CDV), doesn't last long outside the dog's body; heat, sunlight, most detergents, soaps, and thvarious chemicals inactivate it. After an infected dog has been removed from the premises, contaminated objects and living areas should be disinfected with a 1:30 bleach-water solution.¹

A couple days later and Earnest seemed to have gone downhill again, back to the Animal clinic, for an extended stay. Fran's fever had gone down, but was back up again.   More tests for her, an ultrasound, and the diagnosis:   "fever of unknown origin” - no kidding !!

Six days later

281 distempernose


Earnest comes back home.  He now has "green goop" discharge from both eyes and his nose. The Vet at The Animal clinic admitted they don't know what is wrong with him.  He was placed in quarantine at in his foster family’s home - a wire crate kennel And Fran was developing a cough, maybe kennel cough??? 





 281 distemperpaws

They noticed that Earnest’s paw pads are hard, like he has bad calluses. The foster parents begin to suspect he had distemper.  They called the rescue group.

Half the dogs that become infected with canine distemper virus show mild signs of illness or no signs at all. The overall health of the dog has a lot to do with how ill he becomes. The disease is most severe in dogs that are poorly nourished and ill-kept.

Nine days later

They took Fran to the vet to do a viral panel - testing for rocky mountain fever, distemper and a few other viruses. Confirmed. Fran hascanine distemper 2 distemper. The foster parents were told to immediately take her off the prednisone. Although that was helping to keep her fever down, it also suppresses her immune system.  She need that as strong as possible now.
The foster parents had to go back to the first vet (Animal clinic) to get more meds for Earnest and had a discussion with the vet. He was shocked to learn that Fran had distemper, passed on from Earnest.  He said that it was a very difficult disease to diagnose. The foster parents now believe was just not correct.  When their vet made the first mention of possible distemper in Earnest; they started researching...and the symptoms that Earnest displayed, the eye infection, the hard paw pads, were classic signs that this first vet missed. They honestly  wanted to believe that because this first vet at the Animal Clinic was in wealthier part of town, it’s just something they have not encountered. The foster parent’s next door neighbor, who grew up in the country, called it just by looking at Earnest. Distemper.

When they did a quick search online there were many sites all saying “Highly contagious" unvaccinated dogs and young pups whose maternal antibodies fall below protective levels are most at risk. The virus attacks the brain cells, cells that line the body surface, including skin, mucous membranes, and the gastrointestinal tract. First signs 6-9 days after exposure.”

Characterized by fever spike, Second fever spike along with loss of appetite, listlessness and discharge from eyes and nose, The discharge becomes thick and sticky , Diarrhea and vomiting, Dog seems to get better, then relapses.

Second stage

Signs of brain involvement, slobbering, head shaking, "gum chewing" seizures. Tremors "myoclonus” rhythmic contractions of muscle groups up to 60 contractions a minute. The jerking can affect the legs, the head.  The whole body turns a dog into a bobblehead dog. The only good news, here is if the dog recovers, the jerking continues indefinitely, but may become less severe with time.   But it may get worse before it gets better.Hard paw pad, attacks the skin of the feet and nose. Appears about 2 weeks after the onset of infection.

Treatment: NONE
Just like any human has to run its course.   All you can do is keep your dog on antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections. Supportive care to prevent dehydration, meds to prevent vomiting and diarrhea, and anti-convulsants to control seizures.

There's a 50% survival rate in young pups and a 70% survival rates in healthy adults.
All these second stage symptoms can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to completely manifest themselves. There is no way to predict how severe this virus will impact your dog, so time is either your friend or enemy.

And another little tidbit:
Prognosis depends on the strain of canine distemper virus and the dog's immune response. After the initial fever subsides, the disease can progress in a number of ways. More than half of all dogs die between 2 weeks and 3 months after infection, usually from central nervous system complications. Most veterinarians recommend euthanasia for dogs that suffer progressive, severe neurological complications.¹

Wait!! Fran and Earnest were vaccinated!!!
Just like getting a flu shot does not guarantee you will not get the flu. Being vaccinated does not guarantee that your dog is 100% protected.   Maybe there is something else wrong with her immune system, maybe she never developed enough antibodies, maybe the vaccines were old or not administered correctly. Who knows.   Bottom line: Fran had distemper, now how to deal with it?

Why put her through this?  They now knew that there was only 70% survival rates in healthy adults?
The foster parents wondered if that mortality rate includes all the dog owners who give up, who don't want to deal with the disease and make the decision to put the dog down. Early on, without knowing what was wrong with her, the goal was to make her comfortable and do what they could to help her fight whatever infection was raging in her body. They confided again with the rescue....
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, the big unknown was how bad will it get with her...and only time would tell. Too early to give up on her everyone agreed.She was, after all, a healthy strong 2 year old gal, not a weak 7 pound pup like Earnest.


By now Earnest started to "jaw chew", not very often, maybe once a day or so, but he'd move his mouth like he was chewing a wad of gum.   This is a classic distemper sign of neurological damage.

In the middle of the night on Saturday, The foster parents woke up because Earnest was making noise in his kennel. They wrapped him in a towel and brought him to bed with them. In the early hours of the morning, he woke up with a horrible howling that was agonizing to hear.   He was having a huge seizure.   He had a few more seizures Sunday morning that left him completely limp, like a wet noodle. The foster parents contacted the vet liaison  with the rescue, and made arrangements to have him brought in to one of their vets that were open on Sundays.

The drive was a quiet one...They did not have a good feeling about this. After an exam by the vet and a discussion with the rescue organization, they made the decision to put him down. Rest in peace sweet Earnest.

Once Fran's illness was confirmed to be distemper, they knew exactly where it had come from, Earnest. The other issue was all the dogs that Earnest had been in contact with when they first brought him to thier house. There was Amie, the other foster pup, Nathan, who had ridden in the car and spent the first night with them. Sidney, another foster pup not knowing that Earnest and now Frankie were walking germ bombs...some dogs that Amie & Earnest had a play date with when they both seemed healthy. The list goes on, It was like a nightmare. Any one of these dogs that Earnest had been in contact with was at risk. The foster parents immediately sent emails  and called a few key folks in the Rescue organization and those whose dogs had been exposed, letting them know about Fran's diagnosis.
Infected animals shed canine distemper virus in all body secretions. Inhaling the virus is the primary source of exposure. The highest incidence of the disease occurs in unvaccinated puppies 6 to 12 weeks of age, at which time maternal antibodies fall below protective levels.

The foster parents were pretty upset and honestly angry as well. They did get one response that sounded a little sanctimonious "that's why we recommend that fosters be kept separated from other dogs in the household when they are first brought into the home." Really! How easy is that to accomplish when you have multiple energetic balls of fur in the house??   And this is a easily spread air-borne virus at that.

Earnest had the green eye & nose goop long before the official diagnosis. He also had "hard pads" that literally looked like a dime thick, hard as a rock, callus on the bottom of his paws. Even though he was only 7 pounds, you could hear him clomping down the hall on the wood floors. Tears...

Dogs that appear to recover may develop chronic or fatal central nervous system problems. Dogs with mild symptoms (e.g., myoclonus) may recover, though the symptoms can persist for several months or longer. Dogs with a strong immune response may never show any signs of infection. Once a dog has fully recovered, it no longer sheds the virus and is not contagious

To say that those 2 months were horrific is an understatement. Fran’s foster mom told one of the other rescue moms, “I have been an emotional basket case going between bad and really bad days. I've shed so many buckets of tears that I thought my body could not produce any more. Crying when I talk about it, crying when I talk to Fran, crying when I think about it, crying when I'm driving, crying when I drove by a school yard and watched a girl play Frisbee with her dog. Her normal, healthy dog, crying even when I was swimming. Good grief! I so want Fran to be healthy, I so want her to be a normal dog. I miss her twice daily "woo woo" as she reminded me that it was time for food. She would do that with her teeth clenched and her lips would puff up - sooo cute.   I miss her wagging tail. I miss her running into the woods to find a bunny and come out 5 minutes later and 100 feet away from where she entered. I promise her that if /when she can do that again, I won't get upset.”

The foster parents had friends ask if they were mad at the rescue organization.  Yes they do think that they should not move dogs out of vet care unless they are completely healthy, including diarrhea cleared up. They get it, that the rescue has to balance costs and so want the dogs moved into foster homes as quickly as possible.  They did not or could not have known that this would happen..."None of us could in our wildest dreams have predicted this."

And to realize that all the dogs Earnest and Fran came in contact with are still healthy. It's just rotten luck...Fran is in that 1% of vaccinated dogs that still come down with distemper.

The foster parents have had friends say they'd never adopt from a rescue. "Stick with the breeders, it's safer." But it's not. A friend bought a dog from a breeder that had had distemper. The foster parents still think rescue is the way to go. You are getting a dog that has been in foster care, they have information on their temperament and personality. If they have been sick, rest assured, they are not going to adopt them out until they are healthy.

It was interesting to be able to compare the progression of the disease between the 2 pups. Fran was about 9 days behind Earnest in the progression of the disease.   Frank's cough was quickly over in a day. Earnest did not develop a cough at all. Fran did not have diarrhea, Earnest’s never completely cleared up. Honestly don't know about temperature. Fran's was elevated, but we can only assume that Earnest’s was as the foster parents never took his temps.

Fran showed signs that one eye was getting infected. With the antibiotics, it cleared up in about 2 days. Earnest’s infection started in one eye, went to the other, the nose, and were still infected when he was put down. Earnest’s hard pads came and were almost completely sloughed off when he died, took about month?   Fran had hard pads as well. Hers are almost completely gone now.

30 days since first noticed Fran's elevated fever. She was still running a fever, had not gone to the bathroom in a few days. Still contagious, the foster parents went through side door at the vet, away from the other animal population. Temp: 103 degrees, still elevated. The foster parents did notice a slight tremor in her hind legs "starting to appreciate myoclonic spasms in rear limbs" were the words on her chart, the first sign that Fran had neurological damage.  “Continue with the antibiotics to combat secondary infections.” nothing else that can be way to predict if this is as bad as it gets or if it gets worse.


When Fran first developed her fever, they stopped taking her for walks.  She spent almost 24 hours a day sleeping on either her dog bed, the couch, or in bed. By Mid-August, she was getting weaker. Her foster parents did start taking her for short walks. They made it up to the school yard one day, but no running around for her. She was also getting wobbly. By the end of August, she could walk down the driveway, down the sidewalk past a few houses and back, but that was the extent of it. When you've been feverish and bed-ridden for as long as she had, it made sense that her muscles were weak.

By the first week in September, they realized they had to do something..They needed her to get the strength back in her legs and was willing to try almost anything. They considered an alternative treatment. They tracked down a vet who didn't practice traditional medicine but specialized in physical therapy. They wouldn't see Fran because she was possibly still contagious. They did, however, refer them to a vet that practiced traditional and Chinese medicine.
When they were able to get an appointment on to see the vet,  by this time, Fran could barely walk. .

To schedule an appointment with a vet that practices Chinese medicine was completely out of the box...but the foster parents were frustrated by the fact that their vet was saying there was nothing we could do and only time would tell.  They were desperate to find anything that could help Fran.

281 chinesemedchaarat1Fran’s appointment was right after lunch so that they could bring Fran in without exposing her to other dogs.  That made complete sense. Other than the receptionist, the place was empty. Why is it that some vets do not have a "bed side manner"?  Is it because they can't relate to humans that they turn to animal medicine??
The foster parents talked about what had been going on ...the disease...and Fran's behavior and her continued weakening of her hind legs.  In order to get her some sort of workout, they would put her food bowl at the back part of the yard, forcing her to get up and walk in order to eat.    This may sound cruel... They had to do something to get her up and walking.   She could do this. Starting off at a sort of "bunny hop" but once she got momentum, she was up and walking.
The other issue is what they called her "doggie dreams".   About 4 am she would get very restless.  She'd get up, move a few inches, lie down, get up, move a few inches, lay down, and this could go on and on.   She'd also start yipping,  like she was having a bad doggie dream. Only her eyes would be wide open and nothing they could do to console her would calm her down.

The one thing that vet said that made them stop and think, she said "I can get her to walk, but she'll never be completely normal again.  Can you live with that?"     Fair question. And they still don't know the answer.
The vet brought out this pendant of some sort, on a chain, and started chanting the names of the herbs she was going to prescribe. That chanting somehow that determined what the dosage would be. The foster parents quickly learned that speaking during 281 chinesemed1this was not appreciated. At the end our of hour session, the foster parents walked out of there  with an assortment of 8 different bottles - herbs, drops, pills that would help bring Fran back to the healthy world.   When they searched on the net after the fact, The foster parents were honestly horrified at the bill and the  markup  for these herbs that they had paid.

It's late September her hard pads had completely peeled off. Her fever did seem to start going down. Can't pinpoint when that happened, don’t think it was a result of the herbs, the foster parents think that was just coincidence, but really really encouraging.

Those leg tremors that appeared end of August were now full force. Literally, her hind legs would twitch every second (they timed it). Sometimes the tremors were so hard her whole body would shake. Other times, they were pretty mild and that's when she slept the best.

The foster parent’s next door neighbor, who would hear her yipping, thought she should be put down. The neighbor across the alley had 2 large dogs that bark every morning at 7 am when they go outside. The neighbor on one side had a yappy dog that barked, when it plays, when it is outside to potty, when it chases squirrels, etc. A neighbor on the other side would let their dog out at 3 am and it would bark 15 minutes before it was brought back inside.   For now, they could put up with a little yipping.

Their mom thought she should be put down. The foster parents finally had to let her know that that topic was off limits. They realized those "doggie dreams" were really seizures. They don't know why that didn't dawn on me sooner, I guess because they were different from what they had experienced with Earnest.

BT250 medsforpetsFran had to be able to walk. They had a "quality of life" discussion with their vet.  And conversations with the rescue, They all agreed, if Fran could not walk outside to potty, if she could not move around the house, if she could not walk in the back yard, then it would not be fair to her. Another person in the rescue organization was fostering a dog with seizures. He was on phenobarbital and something else. After researching the pheno, they were concerned about side effects. They did not want a dopey, lethargic, spaced out dog. She said that her foster did not show any of these signs, so they put a call in to their vet to get a prescription going.

Their friend was helping them to get Fran walking.   They would move 10 feet away from her and entice her with treats, praising her effusively as she would get up and come to us. 10 feet grew to 15 feet, 15 grew to 20, etc. It didn't seem like she had to "bunny hop" to get up and she looked so much stronger in just 3 days. They were thrilled.

Friday night, they gave her the first pheno dose. They slept almost the whole night through for the first time in a very long time. It wasBT 250 bteyes great. It rained all day Sat & Sun, so no walking practice.   By Tuesday, 3 days on the pheno, she could not walk at all. She could not even get up via "bunny hop". She could barely pull herself along with her front legs, dragging her whole body behind her. They started feeling like they were torturing her. Were they selfish to keep her alive? Were they selfish to put her down? How much more could she and they take?

Another conversation with the rescue and they made the decision to have Fran put down.   They were between a rock and a hard place.  She needed the pheno to control the seizures, but the pheno caused ataxia (hind leg weakness) and she could not walk.  


They started saying my goodbyes to her.  The tears would not stop. They felt physically sick. She'd be able to run and play and have dog bones, and not be in pain.  She'd be happy. They would miss her so much.  She was their beautiful girl. They called the vet and scheduled her appointment.


In a last ditch effort to confirm they were making the right decision for Fran they did more research about pheno.  That is when they found out there are both temporary and potentially permanent side effects!  The ataxia and lethargy are temporary effects, lasting 2 to 3 weeks.  Surely they could hold out a few more weeks??  What would happen if they cut back on her dose a little, maybe her strength would come back. They did take Fran to her vet appointment.  They talked to the vet.  She did not express an opinion one way or another, but they did have the conversation again about quality of life and Fran needing the ability to walk.

They cut her dosage. The foster parents noticed that as the pill would wear off, her seizures would start back up.  This second smaller dose helps to even out the med.

They felt there was still hope so operation "walk Fran walk" began.
They wrapped towels around 2 individual leashes...which gave them the ability to support her around the abdomen and chest without the leashes digging in to her!! They set up a "track" in the back yard, with reward stations, so the foster parents could measure how much she is "walking".

Without support, all she can do was to drag her body along using the little strength she had in her front legs. The good news is that Fran was food motivated. It can be her breakfast/dinner time or a chunk of apple or a few bites of dog food....Fran would walk for food! Every day, they would “walk" a minimum of 400 feet.   She seemed to be getting a little stronger, but has yet to be able to push herself up on her hind legs.

She was still not completely seizure free.   After the initial bad effects of the pheno, they cut back on her dosage. They were reluctant to up the's the balancing act between her being seizure free and getting the strength in her legs.

The morning the routine started out the same.

Put the food bowl at the far end of the yard. Help her up, and support her hips as she "walked" toward her bowl. After she ate, the foster mom had to take the recycling and trash out.   When she came through the back fence gate, there’s Fran.   ON ALL FOUR FEET !!   She walked, on her own, across the yard, the patio, out the gate, past the garage to the end of the driveway.   We're talking at least 50 feet of unassisted walking. This was an amazing Break through!!!!

She is a walking fiend!! The foster dad thinks her ability to move around by herself has really boosted her confidence.  She doesn't yelp (much) any more. She doesn't feel helpless. She can get up and get a drink of water when she wants. She can move freely from room to room now.
Within a  week, her progress had gone from 20 foot increments to her walking down the driveway, down the sidewalk past neighbor's houses, estimated 200 feet without stopping.  She is getting stronger every day and it is wonderful and amazing to see the significant improvements she has made.

The seizures seem to be under control she's still on the prescribed dosage. Her Foster mom would love at some point in time to not have to wake up at 4am every morning, but she is afraid to mess with her doses now.

Fran still has the leg tremors...who knows if those will ever go away. A side effect of that is her hind paws are constantly rubbing against each other and against whatever surface she is laying on. She has rubbed most of her fur off.   She now wears socks to reduce the chafing and prevent the skin from being rubbed raw.


Canine distemper is a contagious and serious viral illness with no known cure. The disease affects dogs, and certain species of wildlife, such as raccoons, wolves, foxes, and skunks. The common house pet, the ferret, is also a carrier of this virus. Canine distemper belongs to the Morbillivirus class of viruses, and is a relative of the measles virus, which affects humans, the Rinderpest virus that affects cattle, and the Phocine virus that causes seal distemper. All are members of the Paramyxoviridae family. Young, unvaccinated puppies and non-immunized older dogs tend to be more susceptible to the disease.¹
Worldwide, it is the leading cause of infectious disease deaths in dogs, although in the United States it occurs only sporadically.

The virus, which is spread through the air and by direct or indirect (i.e. utensils, bedding) contact with an infected animal, initially attacks a dog’s tonsils and lymph nodes and replicates itself there for about one week. It then attacks the respiratory, urogenital, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems.
In the initial stages of Canine Distemper, the major symptoms include high fever (≥103.5 ° F, or 39.7° C), reddened eyes, and a watery discharge from the nose and eyes. An infected dog will become lethargic and tired, and will usually become anorexic. Persistent coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur. In the later stages of the disease, the virus starts attacking the other systems of the dog’s body, particularly the nervous system. The brain and spinal cord are affected and the dog may start having fits, seizures, paralysis, and attacks of hysteria.
Canine distemper is sometimes also called “hard pad disease” because certain strains of the virus can cause an abnormal enlargement or thickening of the pads of an animal’s feet. In dogs or animals with weak immune systems, death may result two to five weeks after the initial infection.
Non-immunized dogs that come into any kind of contact with an infected animal carry a particularly high risk of contracting the disease.
microscopeCanine distemper is diagnosed with biochemical tests and urine analysis, which may also reveal a reduced number of lymphocytes, the white blood cells that function in the immune system in the initial stages of the disease (lymphopenia). A serology test may identify positive antibodies, but this test cannot distinguish between vaccination antibodies and an exposure to a virulent virus. Viral antigens may be detected in urine sediment or vaginal imprints. Haired skin, nasal mucous, and the footpad epithelium may be tested for antibodies as well. Radiographs can only be used to determine whether an infected animal has contracted pneumonia. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can be used to examine the brain for any lesions that may have developed.
Treatment for the disease, therefore, is heavily focused on alleviating the symptoms. If the animal has become anorexic or has diarrhea, intravenous supportive fluids may be given. Discharge from the eyes and nose must be cleaned away regularly. Antibiotics may be prescribed to control the symptoms caused by a secondary bacterial infection, and phenobarbitals and potassium bromide may be needed to control convulsions and seizures. There are no antiviral drugs that are effective in treating the disease.
In the more acute stages of canine distemper, it is necessary to monitor for development of pneumonia or dehydration from diarrhea. The central nervous system (CNS) must also be monitored because seizures and other neural disturbances may occur. A dog’s chances for surviving canine distemper will depend on the strain of the virus and the strength of the dog’s immune system. Recovery is entirely possible, although seizures and other fatal disturbances to the CNS may occur two to three months after recovery. Fully recovered dogs do not spread or carry the virus.
The best prevention for canine distemper is routine vaccinations and immediate isolation of infected animals. Special care must be taken to protect new-born pups from exposure, since they are especially susceptible to the disease.
Prevention: Vaccination against canine distemper is almost 100 percent protective. All puppies should be vaccinated by 8 weeks of age. Brood bitches should be given a DHPP (distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, and parainfluenza combination) booster shot two to four weeks before breeding. This ensures that high antibody levels will be present in the colostrum. However, some veterinarians believe this additional vaccine booster is not needed.
See more at:
²Source petMD blog