The symptoms of the early stages of distemper include:
- Gunky/runny nose
- Dry eyes
- Dry/cracking nose
- Dry/cracking pads of feet
- Vomiting and diarrhea
However, not all dogs get all of these symptoms, nor do they get them in any particular order. And there are other diseases that can easily mimic distemper. The problem is that by the time the vet sends out samples to a lab to check for distemper antibodies, the disease will have advanced too far for the NDV-induced serum to do the job it is designed to do. Dogs must be treated with the serum before going through the sixth day of symptoms to give the animal the best chance of survival and to avoid the neurologic stage of the disease.
You need a diagnosis, but you also need to act fast in case this is distemper. Dr. Sears recommends sending blood samples to the lab anyway, but still to treat immediately as if it is distemper because if you’re right, you have saved the dog. If you’re wrong and it is not distemper, the NDV treatment does not harm the dog.
From Dr. Sears:
“The best test for rapidly diagnosing ACUTE distemper is to do what is called a brush border smear of the cells of the lining of the bladder. These cells ALWAYS have inclusions if distemper is present. So, easy to collect, easy to stain (quick dip) and instantly diagnosed inclusions in these cells are carmine red and para nuclear. These inclusions will NOT be present in long term distemper cases.
“Any medical person can tell you how to get cells from the bladder. Urinary catheter. Empty bladder, flush with saline and collect some of the last saline. Spin down the saline and remove the cells. Place on slide and dry stain with diff-quick. Very common stain used by most medics or lab people who use medical microscopy. Everyone? I should hope so. Very fast, very cheap, very accurate for Dx of distemper. If present then Distemper. If negative, then either Kennel Cough or Respiratory Herpes. or Toxoplasmosis.”
BREAKING NEWS: On Oct. 11, 2011, a much more reliable lab test for distemper was announced, which can tell whether distemper antibodies are caused by an active infection rather than from a recent inoculation. This would probably still take a matter of days to get an answer back, but it would be a way of confirming the disease after the dog has been treated.
UPDATE AS OF JUNE 2020: I’ve been hearing lately that distemper test results can be returned much faster with today’s technology.