Canine distemper is a serious, highly contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and often, the nervous systems of puppies and dogs. The virus also infects wild canids (e.g. foxes, wolves, coyotes), raccoons, skunks, and ferrets.
ALL dogs are at risk, but puppies younger than four months old and dogs that have not been vaccinated against the disease are at the greatest risk.
Infection usually occurs from exposure to the virus in the respiratory secretions of an infected animal. Outbreaks of distemper tend to be sporadic. The virus also affects wildlife populations, so contact between wild and domestic animal may contribute to the spread of the virus.
The first sign of canine distemper is an eye discharge that may appear watery or pus-like. Then, dogs may develop fever, coughing, nasal discharge, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy. In later stages, the virus may attack the nervous system, resulting in twitching, seizures, and even partial or complete paralysis. The foot pads may also harden. Often, distemper is fatal. If a dog does not die from the disease, the virus can cause irreparable damage to the dog's nervous system. Because distemper is so serious and the symptoms so varied, take your Boston to your veterinarian right away if you suspect it is ill.
Clinical appearance and laboratory tests are used to diagnose distemper. Once infected, there is no specific drug available that will kill the virus. Treatment efforts include prevention of secondary infections, controlling vomiting, diarrhea and neurologic symptoms, and administering fluids to reduce dehydration. Ill dogs should be separated from other dogs to prevent spread of the disease.
Vaccination and avoiding contact with infected animals are key to preventing distemper. Young puppies are very susceptible to infection. If a puppy is exposed to distemper before their immune systems are developed, it may become ill. Also, the natural immunity provided by a mother's milk may interfere with response to vaccination. So, even vaccinated puppies may become ill on occasion.
Vaccinations are given in a series to provide the best protection against the disease during the first few months of life. Avoid taking your puppy to places where there are other dogs until it has received its complete series of vaccinations.
If you have an adult Boston Terrier, be sure that his vaccination is current. Your veterinarian can recommended an appropriate vaccination program for your dog.
Contact with known infected dogs as well as raccoons, foxes, skunks and other wildlife should always be avoided.