Difference Between Distemper & Rabies

Rabies and distemper are both serious illnesses that can threaten the lives of your pets. While some of the symptoms may be similar, the causes and treatments for these diseases are vastly different. If your pet may have been exposed to rabies or distemper but has not been vaccinated on schedule, consult your veterinarian immediately.

Happy vet with dog and cat
Distemper and rabies pose serious health threats to your furry friends.
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Those At Risk

The rabies virus can affect any mammal, including humans. It is most common in carnivores and bats. Distemper, meanwhile, comes in two forms: canine distemper, or paramyxovirus, and feline distemper, or feline panleukopenia -- and both of these can affect raccoons, minks, ferrets, badgers and related species. As the names suggest, canine distemper affects dogs, wolves, foxes and other members of the Canidae family; feline distemper infects cats, bobcats, lynxes and other members of family Felidae.

Symptoms of Rabies

Rabies spreads through the saliva of infected animals, usually via a bite. After the bite, symptoms may take a long time to appear, but they typically present after 21 to 80 days. Changes in behavior such as irritability, aggression, nervousness and over-excitement may be signs of a rabies infection. Wild animals that become overly friendly or come out at unusual times of day are cause for concern. Neurological symptoms such as partial or progressive paralysis, drooling, lack of muscle coordination and a drooping lower jaw may indicate rabies. If you suspect any animal, wild or domestic, may have rabies, contact animal control immediately. Infected animals can be highly aggressive.

Symptoms of Distemper

Both canine and feline distemper are highly contagious. Canine distemper generally passes through droplets in the air breathed out by animals suffering from the infection, while feline distemper may spread either through the air or via fleas and flies. A few days after infection, canine distemper will generally cause a fever. From there, symptoms progress to lethargy, runny nose, loss of appetite and eye discharge. As the infection continues, you may see muscle twitching, head tilting, partial paralysis, convulsions or compulsive movements like chewing or pacing. Symptoms of feline distemper may include fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea or tremors. The disease is most commonly seen in cats under 1 year old.

Treatment Options

Unfortunately, the outlook for rabies and distemper is often grim. Once rabies symptoms present, there is no treatment, but it is still important to identify the infection so it isn't passed to other animals or humans. If you may have been exposed to rabies, contact your doctor immediately. Multiple doses of the rabies vaccine over time will allow your body to fight the infection as long as it is caught early.

There is no treatment for feline or canine distemper other than supportive care, such as fluids, electrolytes, broad-spectrum antibiotics, painkillers and anti-convulsants. Many animals do not survive distemper, and those that do may have permanent neurological effects such as tremors, convulsions or paralysis.

Prevention Methods

Vaccines for rabies and distemper protect pets from becoming infected even if they're exposed. Rabies vaccines are typically administered every three years after the first two doses one year apart. Dogs and cats can be vaccinated, as can ferrets, cattle, horses and sheep. Puppies can get canine distemper vaccines when they reach 6 weeks of age; a number of booster shots will follow. Similarly, feline distemper vaccines are typically administered to kittens around 6 weeks of age and require booster shots. Talk to your veterinarian about protecting your pets from these dangerous diseases.