Notification of positive canine distemper case

Published on 16 November 2023

RSPCA Victoria is urging caution among dog owners in the Bayswater area after a puppy in their care, who was surrendered to RSPCA’s Inspectorate from the area, tested positive for distemper – a highly contagious viral disease affecting domestic dogs.

Though preventable through vaccination, distemper is often fatal after affecting the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous system of the dog. Distemper is contagious to other dogs, ferrets and some wildlife, but not humans or cats.

While this is an isolated case, given the highly contagious nature of the virus the RSPCA is asking the community to remain cautious of the symptoms and ensure their dogs’ and puppies’ vaccinations are up-to-date.

Signs of the virus may include one, some or all of the following:

  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • thick yellow discharge from the eyes and nose
  • cough, and
  • in severe cases, seizures and neurological signs like stumbling, head tilt, and paralysis.

Anyone concerned about the health of their dog or puppy should contact their local veterinarian or RSPCA’s Veterinary Clinics.

For those in the Bayswater area, it’s recommended they contact their veterinarian before bringing them into the clinic if they suspect they may have or have been exposed to distemper. It is also recommended that contact with other dogs be limited – particularly if their vaccines are not up-to-date or their vaccine status is unknown.

Frequently asked questions

What is canine distemper?

Canine distemper is a virus that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs. It is often fatal, and dogs who survive typically have irreversible damage to their nervous system.

How is canine distemper spread?

It is most commonly spread through airborne exposure (sneezing or coughing) but can also be spread through shared food and water bowls and equipment.

What are the symptoms of canine distemper?

Signs of distemper vary greatly as it affects multiple body systems. Signs to watch for include:  

  • thick yellow discharge from the eyes and nose 
  • fever 
  • coughing 
  • lethargy 
  • diarrhea 
  • vomiting 
  • reduced appetite  
  • thickening and hardening of footpads 
  • in severe cases, seizures and neurological signs like stumbling, head tilt, and paralysis

What should I do if I suspect my dog has distemper or has been exposed?

If your dog is showing any signs of illness, contact your veterinarian or an RSPCA Vet Clinic immediately. If you suspect they may have or been exposed to distemper, it is highly recommended you call your veterinary clinic before bringing in your dog.

How is distemper diagnosed?

Veterinarians can diagnose canine distemper through the symptoms and laboratory testing.

How is it treated?

Sadly, there is no cure for canine distemper. Due to the severity and contagiousness of the illness, it is often fatal. In some cases supportive care may be provided to manage symptoms while the dog is isolated. However, dogs who survive are often left with permanent damage to their nervous system.

Can other animals get canine distemper?

Canine distemper can also be transmitted to ferrets and some wildlife. It is not transmissible to cats or humans.

How can I protect my dog from distemper?

The most effective way to protect your dog from distemper is to have them vaccinated. Puppies should receive a series of vaccines to help them build immunity, and adult dogs should have their vaccines updated each year.

Check with your veterinarian or contact an RSPCA Vet Clinic to ensure your dog’s vaccinations are up-to-date.

Other steps you can take to minimise the risk include:

  1. Practicing good hygiene – the distemper virus can be easily killed with proper cleaning and sanitization.
  2. Limiting contact with other dogs, especially those who are unvaccinated or whom you don’t know their vaccination status.

What happened to the dog who had distemper at RSPCA?

Sadly, the puppy had to be humanely euthanased due to the severity and contagiousness of the illness.

Have any other dogs become sick as a result of this case?

Thankfully, this appears to be an isolated case at this time. A second puppy that was being housed with the ill puppy has been placed in isolation and is undergoing further testing, however is not showing any signs of illness at this time.

What has RSPCA Victoria done to prevent other dogs from getting sick?

RSPCA Victoria has multiple safeguards in place to minimise the transmission of illness among animals, such as providing core vaccines to all dogs who enter their care, which includes distemper.

We also have cleaning and sanitisation procedures in place. A deep clean of the areas where the puppy was housed has also been conducted to further reduce risk. Thankfully, the distemper virus is easy to kill with proper cleaning and sanitation procedures.

How did distemper end up in Bayswater?

The puppy who became ill was surrendered to the RSPCA Inspectorate from the Bayswater area at the end of October. Unfortunately, we do not know where this puppy originally came from or where it may have picked up distemper. It likely came from an unvaccinated dog and/or a dog who is chronically shedding the virus and not showing symptoms.

Should people not buy puppies or dogs in Bayswater?

No matter where you are getting a new puppy or dog, it’s important to ensure that they are coming from a responsible, reputable source who provide health checks and veterinary care to their animals. You should also be able to see where the puppies or dogs are kept and that it is clean and spacious. Please check out RSPCA’s Smart Puppy Buyers Guide for more tips.

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