Distemper is a nasty virus, not a state of mind

Dogs that are getting grumpy with people or other pets should probably be seen by a veterinarian, but they aren’t likely to be diagnosed with distemper. Because of its name, the distemper virus gets blamed for a lot of bad actors in the doggy world.

“He didn’t get his distemper shot as a puppy and he’s one mean dog.”

Once a common cause of illness in the pet dog population, the canine distemper virus (CDV) is now fairly well controlled by vaccination. Unlike another deadly disease of dogs, canine parvovirus, CDV doesn’t live long outside the body and is easily removed from the environment with simple cleaning methods. Distemper causes respiratory, gastrointestinal and, more rarely, neurological symptoms.

In 17 years of practice, I have never seen a case of distemper in a dog, but don’t be fooled, the virus is alive and thriving. Outbreaks are still reported periodically by shelters and rescue facilities, anywhere there are unvaccinated dogs. Sadly, it is also a relatively common disease in wild populations of raccoons, foxes, large cats and other species. It nearly caused the extinction of the black-footed ferret and recently mutated to affect seals.

The disease easily crosses back from field and forest to our backyards. So, although it won’t do anything to improve Grumpy Dog’s temperament, vaccination against distemper is still vital.

The same is true for feline distemper – another weirdly named disease, caused by a totally different type of virus than the canine version. Unlike CDV, the feline distemper or “panleukopenia” virus (FPV) is everywhere and most cats will have been exposed at some time in their lives. Panleukopenia is similar to canine parvovirus except it is even harder to clean out of the environment. Affected cats develop severe gastrointestinal symptoms and immune system compromise, generally leading to death.

Even though it is hard to disinfect areas contaminated with FPV, cats can be well-protected from infection by vaccination. Even a single vaccine may give kittens some protection, but it’s important to time the shots to take over as immunity passed on by their mothers wanes.

For both dogs and cats, the “distemper vaccine” generally includes bundled protection against other diseases that are now more common. That way, we don’t have to give multiple injections. Still, somehow the “distemper” name has stuck through the ages. “He’s here for his distemper shot, Doc.”

How the heck did we end up with that name? It seems to have originated in a 14th century term that meant “to upset the balance of the humors”. Back then, humors referred to four types of bodily fluids thought to affect health and temperament. Distemper was probably treated with leaches…back then, before we had vaccines and bad humor meant something more than being grumpy.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Trenton/Quinte West
February 2013