Vet’s View: Can dogs survive the distemper virus?

Dr. Patty Khuly

sad husky at the vet

Distemper is a highly-contagious and often deadly disease that affects the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and nervous systems. That’s why getting a distemper vaccine for any dog is critical; this we all know. Unfortunately, that’s usually all most dog owners know about distemper. And that’s not always good enough. Not if your recent shelter rescue just came down with it and you’re wondering whether you can manage such a devastating diagnosis.

Like other infectious diseases, distemper typically occurs in outbreaks. While it usually happens in shelter settings (typically in the most underfunded facilities in areas where most pet owners don't vaccinate their dogs routinely), outbreaks can happen anywhere.

In fact, now that some pet owners are opting out of vaccines altogether, outbreaks are occurring in even the most well-heeled communities. This means veterinarians are opting to treat it instead of euthanizing sufferers. And some dedicated pet owners are even willing to adopt dogs who have suffered through the disease and come out fighting – often with permanent damage to their bodies. This is why every dog owner should learn more about the disease instead of just prevention.

What is the distemper virus?

Distemper in dogs is caused by a virus that is spread through most body fluids including saliva, urine, and blood. At first, the disease can look like kennel cough with goopy eyes, fever, runny nose, coughing, and lethargy as the most common symptoms. Later signs of infection can include seizures and even paralysis.

Sadly, most dogs with distemper are euthanized. These are typically puppies born in backyard breeding situations or unvaccinated adults exposed in shelters or other high-population environments.

Despite the high death toll, euthanasia isn’t strictly necessary. Plenty of dogs can survive distemper virus, but not without a fight that includes expensive veterinary care most dog owners may be unable to shoulder. Indeed, it can cost hundreds, if not many thousands of dollars to treat distemper successfully. And even then, a severe case may succumb despite the most valiant efforts.

Distemper Virus Treatment: Why is it so tough to treat?

For starters, it’s important to note that distemper is a virus and is not curable by antibiotic therapy like bacterial infections. They’re simply ineffective. Consequently, the treatment for distemper is primarily supportive, which means we work hard to keep symptoms under control while the virus runs its course – sort of like the way we treat the flu in people.

Supportive care can get really expensive for patients who get really sick. Intensive care hospitalization at a specialty hospital is, after all, a pricey affair that typically runs into the hundreds of dollars a day, should it be required.

What’s more, it can be hard to predict how long or how severely a patient may suffer. While some can experience a more mild version of the virus with relatively few severe effects, others could be afflicted for up to two weeks!

Then there’s the issue of survivability. Can dogs really live through this? If the sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, high fever, possible pneumonia, vomiting, and diarrhea weren’t enough, most of these dogs will have neurological problems too. Head ticks, seizures, weakness, imbalance, and even paralysis can result. This is when many owners throw in the towel. But is that fair?

In many cases, the neurological symptoms can be helped with medications designed to control even the most potentially-damaging seizures. But many dogs will succumb nonetheless. And most of those who experience the nervous system-related signs of the disease will never shake them all off. Their head ticks, seizures, or inability to walk with a normal gait may persist throughout their lives.

The prospect of such seemingly-terrible symptoms may feel daunting but here’s where I have to ask: are they reason enough to euthanize?

Should you consider euthanasia?

As someone who sees plenty of patients live long, happy, and otherwise healthy lives after distemper, I have strong reservations about blanket recommendations with respect to being in favor of euthanasia. Most of the neurological effects aren’t severe enough to significantly interfere with the quality of their lives.

For patients whose families have few financial resources or who are unlucky enough to live in shelter housing or foster care, I can understand euthanasia. In fact, I’d support the decision wholeheartedly. However, for those who elect it for their own pets based on the possibility of permanent neurological damage, I tend to be opposed.

After all, as long as we can humanely help them weather the disease itself (this assumes it doesn’t hit them too hard), shouldn’t we step up with the willingness to help them shoulder any of its future effects?

Now, it’s important to note that we should never demand that our pets suffer unduly despite the prospect of future wellness. In other words, dogs may become too ill and their suffering too extreme to merit treatment. We can’t very well require our dogs to languish for weeks feeling abjectly terrible with the hopes of better days ahead. But if we’re euthanizing because we worry about future neurological remnants of the disease, I believe the decision is ill-founded.

Dogs with distemper virus should be given a chance, if financially feasible, to recover and enjoy future lives disease free, even if they might suffer the occasional seizure or a consistent lack of balance. As long as the long-term effects don’t bother them (and, in my experience, they usually don’t), I say go for it.

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