A basic guide for Canine Distemper Virus (CDV)


By: Taylor McLagan
August 11, 2023

Canine distemper is a severe and infectious virus that affects both puppies and dogs’ respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. According to Cornell University, the virus can be fatal, with a mortality rate of 50% in adult dogs and 80% in puppies, without proper care. Cincinnati Animal Care prioritizes providing proper medical attention to all dogs affected by distemper in our shelter. This guide provides an overview of distemper, the actions taken during distemper crises, and its impact on shelters nationwide.

The efforts of Cincinnati Animal Care in managing distemper

Cincinnati Animal Care has faced a difficult journey managing the distemper crises in a shelter environment. Despite this challenge, CAC remains committed to providing excellent care to each individual dog.

In the beginning, it was quickly discovered that the main building lacked space to isolate dogs that tested positive for distemper and prevent it from spreading. To address this issue, CAC obtained two more locations, which brings the total number of shelter buildings to three. These new facilities separate dogs that test positive and need medical attention from new dogs that have not been exposed.

  • 4210 Dane Ave – This facility shelters all-new intakes and stray animals recently taken in.
  • Dooley – This facility houses all positive CDV dogs with proper isolation and hospitalization space. 

On June 17th, 2023, CAC celebrated its grand re-opening after being officially cleared from CDV quarantine with zero distemper cases at the main Colerain location. With this huge win for the shelter and hundreds of lives saved, it is still imperative that CAC continues to operate with the utmost care regarding canine distemper.

After the first known case of CDV in early March, the medical team tested 218 dogs as of July, and unfortunately, 92 of them have tested positive for distemper. However, thanks to the prompt response of CAC staff and proper isolation measures, we saved 50 CDV-positive dogs and prevented any further exposure to the virus across our central location! The survival rate is something incredible to take pride in, as many other shelters are not able to handle and survive a distemper outbreak.

Without the support of our dedicated volunteers, fosters, CAC community, and hardworking staff, Cincinnati Animal Care would not have been able to navigate this challenge and ensure every dog has the opportunity to be saved. We are deeply grateful for their help and commitment.

The Start 

Dogs and puppies catch the distemper virus from infected dogs or wild animals through airborne exposure, such as sneezing or coughing. The virus can also spread through shared food and water bowls and equipment. Infected dogs can shed the virus for several months, while mother dogs can pass it to their puppies through the placenta. Since the virus can affect wildlife populations, too, contact between domestic dogs and wild animals can spread the virus. If there is an outbreak of distemper in local raccoon populations, it could mean that pet dogs in the area are at a higher risk.

Distemper can also be transmitted through respiratory secretions, urine, vomit, or feces of an infected dog. The virus can become a mist when the dog coughs or sneezes and can travel up to 20 feet. The virus will continue shedding for 3 to 4 months for each infected dog.

How Long Does Distemper Survives in Shelters?

The distemper virus can survive for a few hours at room temperature, sufficient for transmitting it through contaminated objects like cleaning supplies, medical equipment, staff clothing, or even hands. This mode of transmission is significant in shelter settings. The incubation period for the virus is usually between 10-14 days, but it can take up to a month for a dog to show symptoms after exposure.

What are the symptoms?

At first, dogs who have been infected will experience a discharge from their eyes, which can range from watery to pus-like. They will then exhibit symptoms such as fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, decreased appetite, and vomiting. As the virus continues to spread, it will begin to affect the nervous system, causing dogs to display behaviors such as circling, tilting their head, muscle twitches, convulsions with jaw movements, and salivation (known as “chewing gum fits”), seizures, and partial or complete paralysis. 

Although all dogs can be at risk, young puppies under four months old and dogs who haven’t been vaccinated against canine distemper have a higher chance of contracting the virus.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Canine distemper is diagnosed by veterinarians based on clinical signs and laboratory tests. There is no cure for this infection. Supportive care can be provided to manage secondary vomiting, diarrhea, and neurologic symptoms. The primary goal is to manage symptoms and help dogs recover smoothly. It is best to keep affected dogs separated from other dogs to avoid spreading any potential illnesses.

At Cincinnati Animal Care, we conduct lab tests on all dogs that have shown signs of canine distemper virus (CDV) or have been in the shelter starting early March. Each dog undergoes a blood titer test to determine their vaccine immunity and viral antibodies in their blood system, as well as a PCR test that involves two swabs in the back of the throat and nasal cavity. The tests are then sent to the lab for overnight analysis. 

Tutorials on how to collect Distemper Samples: 

Prevention in shelters: 

Research shows that the percentage of dogs without proper immunity to canine distemper virus in different shelters and regions can vary, with up to 60% lacking protection. If these dogs come into contact with the virus, they will likely become infected. This percentage may increase to over 80% for young dogs under one year.

At Cincinnati Animal Care, all dogs brought into the shelter are given a modified live vaccine for distemper as soon as they arrive. This vaccine is usually part of a combo vaccine called DHPP, which also protects against Hepatitis, Parainfluenza, and Parvo Virus. Although other options are available, modified live vaccines are preferred in high-risk settings like shelters.

It takes time for dogs to develop complete immunity after vaccination. Typically, a second dose of the vaccine is needed more than two weeks after the initial vaccination for full immunity to develop. Following the vaccination guidelines shelters provide for proper vaccination scheduling is essential.

It is crucial for all dog owners in the community to prioritize proper vaccinations. This is because distemper can be widespread among dogs and wildlife, posing a risk to unvaccinated dogs more susceptible to contracting the virus.

The distemper outbreak experience only strengthened the core mission of CARE. Everyone involved has dedicated countless time, energy, and money to ensuring every life that could be saved was saved. Hopefully, we never see distemper again, but in the event that we do, CAC will be ready.

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