We know that our canine combination vaccine protects against Distemper, but on the whole many owners are unaware of the specifics of this disease. We tend to think we know a lot more about Rabies and Kennel Cough. Distemper is a scary disease, affecting mostly young dogs, and it's survival rate isn't great.
Distemper is a virus, and is highly contagious. All canids can get it (dogs, fox, wolves) as well as ferrets, skunks and raccoons. Your cat cannot get Distemper from your dog. It's actually closely related to Measles! Sometimes, a vet may give a measles vaccine to puppies at risk, when they are still too young to receive a distemper shot.
In the environment, Distemper isn't a "strong" virus. Many day to day disinfectants will kill it, along with heat and UV light. It can last 1 week in the environment.
This disease is transmitted mostly by aerosolization; this is the most contagious form. All body secretions can transmit the disease, and it can be transmitted to pups in the womb from mom. Clinical symptoms differ depending on if your pup got this from mom in the womb versus after birth.
Pups most susceptible are unvaccinated, or undervaccinated pups between 3-6 months old. (under-vaccinated refers to owners who perhaps are missing one of the shots in their early puppy series) When our dogs are born, they are born with certain anti-bodies that mom had in her system. Why we start vaccinations at 6-8 weeks, is because this is the time when mom's anti-bodies are waning and our pups immune systems begin to be "on their own". Without vaccination at this time they may not have anti-bodies, and without their additional 2 more "puppy vaccinations" before turning 1, they are also at risk.
So where does this horrible virus do it's damage? It starts in the lower respiratory tract and lymphoid tissues. It spreads to the nervous system. It can start off looking like a cold, with eye and nose discharge. They may also contract pneumonia. We may also see vomiting and diarrhea. It also attacks the "skin system" and causes noses and paws to become hard and overgrown. This is why it's sometimes referred to as "hard pad disease". There can be pimple-like pustules on their abdomen. Pups who have suffered from Distemper and lived to tell the tale, often have what is called "Distemper Teeth". While suffering, the enamel on their new adult teeth can no longer form properly, and it is underdeveloped in certain spots on their teeth. It almost looks like a camouflage pattern of normal enamel and darker parts. Distemper is the most common cause of seizures in dogs under 6 months old, because it impacts their nervous system.
Our dogs exhibit signs 2 weeks after exposure. Your vet can do tests in house or send tests out to determine if your dog is infected. The sad part is that Distemper is largely regarded as disease that just kills. The survival rate is a mere 10%. Sometimes, our dogs can suffer from "Old Dog Encephalopathy", which means the dog survived Distemper while young, and now may suffer seizures which seem inexplicable when they are old. Having been a neurological disease, the disease itself, while no longer transmissible, can "live" in the brain tissue and cause seizures in older dogs who've survived it.
On the whole, our dogs are quite safe when we follow our veterinarians recommended vaccination schedule. Don't skimp out on puppies; I think there is a folly to those who think that because a dog is young, they have these amazing immune systems and therefore vaccinations are unnecessary. It's always the young and the old who are at risk.