What is Canine Distemper?

4 min read

A dog laying down with a vet's hand on the dogs head.
Dr. Erica Irish author of What is Canine Distemper?

There are a number of bacterial and viral illnesses that can make your canine companion very sick, and many of these diseases are prevented by the annual vaccinations that are recommended by your veterinarian. 

Parvovirus, rabies, and leptospirosis are examples of diseases that often make headlines, but distemper is a particular illness that is not discussed as frequently.

Canine distemper belongs to a class of viruses known as paramyxovirus. It affects other members of theCanidae family like wolves and foxes, as well as ferrets, raccoons, and skunks. Distemper starts out as a respiratory illness but can eventually spread to other parts of the body and cause gastrointestinal and neurological problems. 

There is no cure for distemper, and treatment mostly consists of supportive care. It can cause lifelong problems and can even be fatal. For these reasons, the distemper vaccination is considered to be a core vaccination alongside others for rabies and parvovirus.

How is canine distemper spread?


Distemper is primarily spread through aerosolized droplets from the nose of an infected dog. Direct contact with nasal secretions can result in the transmission of the illness. These droplets can be licked up or can become airborne through coughing, sneezing, and even barking. 

An infected dog can shed these viral particles for several months, but the virus itself does not survive on surfaces for very long. Distemper virus can also affect unborn puppies if their mother becomes infected, so make sure to vaccinate your dog as early as possible if you plan to breed her.


What are the symptoms of canine distemper?

Distemper virus causes signs that affect multiple organs. In the beginning, your pup will develop a transient fever that disappears for several days and then occurs again along with signs of a respiratory and/or gastrointestinal infection. He is especially more likely to have a distemper virus if he has a combination of all of these signs.

This is because there are few illnesses that can cause a fever coupled with multisystemic clinical signs. The following are some of the symptoms to expect:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Yellow eye discharge
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea
  • Pustular dermatitis

These signs are usually associated with the acute phase of illness, but neurologic signs can occur at any time during infection. Acute phase signs can last anywhere from 10 to 14 days, but neurological abnormalities can be delayed by several weeks or months because the destruction of the lining of the nerves occurs slowly over time.

Examples of neurological signs include:

  • Head tilt
  • Circling
  • Partial or full paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Nystagmus
  • Muscle twitching
  • Convulsions with hypersalivation and “chewing gum fits”

Unfortunately, the risk of death is possible anywhere during these phases. This is usually because of problems like severe pneumonia, brain inflammation, and organ failure.

According to Cornell University, it is estimated that 50% of adult dogs and only 20% of puppies will survive distemper virus. If a dog does not succumb to acute illness, he may suffer from long term problems associated with his nervous system.

Another commonality is for these dogs to havehyperkeratotic or hard paw pads and noses, and their teeth are usually lacking the protective layer in a condition known asenamel hypoplasia.


Treating canine distemper

There is no cure for distemper virus, infected dogs are treated with supportive care based on their clinical signs. Your veterinarian will recommend intravenous fluid therapy along with antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections.

Pain medications and medications to help relieve fever are also recommended. Dogs with pneumonia will have trouble breathing, so oxygen and nebulization therapy are often necessary. If the dog is having seizures, he will need anti-seizure medications and possibly muscle relaxers if he is experiencing twitching signs. Dogs with long term progressive neurologic problems may benefit from immunosuppressive drugs.


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Prevention

Vaccinations are the best way to prevent against distemper virus. Puppies should receive their first vaccine around six to eight weeks of age. After that, they should receive a booster every three weeks until they are sixteen weeks old.

Adult dogs should receive their distemper vaccine annually, and there are one or two vaccine manufacturers who have produced an effective three-year distemper vaccine. Distemper is commonly combined with other illnesses to create a combination vaccination such as the distemper-parvo-adenovirus-parainfluenza vaccination.

If you have a puppy or an adult dog who is overdue for his vaccines, be careful socializing with other dogs and going to areas where there are many dogs such as dog parks and grooming salons.

In fact, many grooming salons and boarding facilities require distemper vaccination as part of their pet policies. Puppies younger than six weeks of age should not be brought outside or socialize with others until they have had at least two vaccinations in their series.

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Canine distemper virus can cause serious, multisystemic health problems and is a deadly but highly preventable illness. It starts out with fever and signs of respiratory illness but can progress to gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms.

There is no cure for distemper, and treatment is recommended on a supportive basis. If you suspect your dog has any of these signs, contact your veterinarian right away. Also, always make sure your dog’s vaccinations are up to date.


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Meet The Author 

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine



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