By: Cate Burnette

Pet parents in East Texas are concerned over the recent reports of the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) showing up in certain species of wildlife in the Mesquite, Texas area. According to a report posted this past week (Jan. 16, 2016) by local CBS-TV Channel 11 News, city animal control officers picked up a raccoon near a city park and a suburban thoroughfare that diagnosed positive for the virus. City officials state that, in the past month, 19 animals – 1 fox and 18 raccoons – were collected and all showed signs of the disease.

This new distemper outbreak compounds the uneasiness felt by doggy parents when veterinarians in Amarillo reported 200 cases of CDV in the last 6 months of 2014 and the local Amarillo rescue lost 28 dogs to the disease during the same time period. The Bastrop County Animal Shelter was forced to shut its doors for a week in June 2015 after the disease was confirmed in at least 82 dogs, leaving 32 animals to be euthanized. In late summer and early fall of last year (2015), at least 22 lions, tigers, and leopards tested positive for CDV and 7 died at a big cat sanctuary based in Wylie, outside of Dallas. Experts believe raccoons likely started the outbreak by crawling around the outdoor cages that housed more than 50 lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats and other cats.

The question on the minds of many responsible pet owners must be: “How prevalent IS Canine Distemper and how can we protect our pets?”

What animals can catch CDV?

Canine Distemper, a contagious and serious viral illness with no known cure, affects species other than dogs…a fact unknown to many dog owners. This disease can be contracted by wild members of the Canidae family (raccoons, foxes, wolves) and the Mephitidae family (skunks and badgers). CDV can infect the big cats (the Felidae family), including tigers, lynxes, cougars, cheetahs, lions, wildcats, servals and ocelots. The ferret, a common house pet, also carries the disease.

CDV belongs to the Morbillivirus class of viruses, and is a relative of the measles virus, which affects humans. A similar virus infects cattle and seals. Young, unvaccinated puppies and non-immunized older dogs tend to be more susceptible to the disease.

Symptoms and Causes

Canine Distemper is an air-borne virus spread through direct or indirect (bedding, feed bowls, petting) contact with an infected animal. The virus initially attacks your dog’s tonsils and lymph nodes and can sit there, undetected, for approximately 1 week. The disease then moves through the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital and nervous systems of infected animals.

In its beginning stages, major symptoms include:

  • High fevers – 103.5ºF or higher
  • Discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Reddened eyes
  • Lethargy
  • Reluctance to eat
  • Persistent coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

As the disease progresses, the virus assaults the dog’s nervous system producing attacks of hysteria, fits, seizures, paralysis, coma and eventual death.

Sometimes called “hard pad disease,” certain strains of the CDV can cause an abnormal thickening or enlargement of the pads of the feet. Without treatment, death will result within 2 to 5 weeks of the initial infection. With veterinary treatment, prognosis is still very poor, but some animals do survive.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your veterinarian typically diagnoses Canine Distemper through blood tests and urine analysis, looking for a reduced number of the white blood cells (lymphocytes) that work to combat the disease in its initial stages. A serology test searching for the cellular reaction produced by the disease may identify positive antibodies, however, this particular test doesn’t distinguish between a normal reaction to the distemper vaccine and exposure to the virus. Urine sediment, vaginal fluids, nasal mucous and the skin on footpads can be tested for those same antibodies. X-rays can determine whether your dog has contracted pneumonia; CT scans and MRIs can examine the brain for any developed lesions as the disease worsens.

Because there is no cure for Canine Distemper, veterinary treatment normally revolves around palliative care. Alleviating the symptoms and keeping the infected animal comfortable are of utmost importance.

Eye and nasal discharge is cleaned away regularly. Intravenous fluids are given if the pet has diarrhea or is unable/unwilling to eat or drink. Since secondary bacterial infections are common, antibiotics may be prescribed to control respiratory and intestinal issues. Phenobarbital and/or potassium bromide may be used to control seizure and convulsions if, and when, the suffering animal gets to that point. No anti-viral drugs have proven effective to treat CDV.

Your dog’s chances for surviving the Canine Distemper Virus depend on the strain of the virus and the strength of your pup’s immune system. Older and very young dogs typically don’t make it. Recovery is possible with consistent – and early – veterinary care; however, seizures and other fatal neurological disturbances can occur 2 to 3 months after the animal recovers. Fully recovered dogs don’t carry the virus and will not spread the disease.


Vaccinating your dog is absolutely crucial to prevent Canine Distemper. The American Veterinary Medical Association proposed the following recommendations:

  • Make sure all puppies are administered the entire series of prescribed vaccinations according to veterinary protocol in order to protect your pup’s immature immune system.
  • Keep vaccinations up to date on mature pets without any gaps in the immunization schedule.
  • Ensure your dog avoids ANY contact with infected animals and wildlife.
  • Avoid socializing your puppies or unvaccinated dogs at doggy parks, puppy/obedience classes, doggy day care and other places where dogs congregate until all vaccinations are complete and up to date.
  • Vaccinate your pet ferret with a USDA-approved ferret canine distemper vaccine.


Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.