Canine Distemper: Know These Important Facts

Canine distemper is a severe condition that's also contagious. The canine distemper virus damages both puppies and older dogs' respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. In addition to canines, there's a feline distemper, and the virus affects wildlife, such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, mink, ferrets, and raccoons.

What is the Canine Distemper Virus?

The canine distemper virus is caused by a paramyxovirus, which is similar to measles and rinderpest viruses. It leads to severe sickness as it attacks the host's body. Because it travels throughout the body, distemper is complicated for veterinarians to treat effectively. It has a mortality rate of 50 percent in adult dogs and 80% in puppies

Understanding How Canine Distemper Spreads

Distemper is a highly contagious virus that spreads through direct contact with the infected animal or an object with respiratory droplets. Research shows the spread of distemper was much less prevalent before 1970. Over the past 40 years, the virus has been increasingly more common. The paramyxovirus is also airborne and can infect dogs that come into contact with it. Infected wildlife can release the virus through coughs, sneezes, or barks. 

Pet owners with dogs and ferrets need to be extremely careful. The virus is 100% fatal in ferrets and otters. Additionally, it can pass through the placenta from an infected dog to a newborn puppy.

Luckily, it doesn't stay on the surface too long, and you can clean it with regular disinfectant. However, the best way to prevent the paramyxovirus is through the distemper vaccine.

Canine Distemper Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of the canine distemper virus come in stages as the condition progresses. Signs begin between 10 and 14 days after exposure. Tests can verify the presence of paramyxovirus. However, professionals shouldn't assume the symptoms indicate distemper. Other ailments have similar signs and require different treatments. If paramyxovirus is confirmed, there is no cure for the distemper virus, only comfort care to help pets through the dangerous condition.

Stage 1

During the first stage of distemper in dogs, they'll experience watery eyes or a pus-like discharge that comes with the loss of appetite and clear nasal discharge. A fever develops three to six days after the infection. Additional signs include,

  • Lethargy
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anorexia
  • Hyperkeratosis or hardening of the paw pads and nose
  • Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord

Hyperkeratosis is why pet owners might hear distemper referred to as "hard pad disease." Another concern is the development of a secondary bacterial infection along with the distemper virus. Indications include,

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Changes in respiratory rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pneumonia

Stage 2

During the second stage, the virus attacks the central nervous system, causing neurological symptoms, such as

  • Circling
  • Head tilt
  • Partial or full paralysis
  • Repetitive eye movements or nystagmus
  • Seizures
  • Muscle twitches
  • Convulsions
  • Increased salivation

Standard medical care for canine distemper includes analgesics, anticonvulsants, and anti-nausea medications. Antibiotics, such as amoxicillin and ampicillin, aren't effective treatments for viruses. However, broad-spectrum antibiotic use may be appropriate for secondary infections. Patients should also receive balanced electrolyte solutions and parenteral nutrition to compensate for fluids and nutrients lost to vomiting, diarrhea, and appetite loss. 

If treatment isn't successful and the dog enters stage two, death is likely. In addition, the highly infectious nature of the condition is problematic. Therefore, it's vital to guarantee the infected pup away from healthy animals during all phases of care. 

Preventing Canine Distemper

The best treatment is to prevent infection through the distemper shot. The core vaccination for dogs is nearly 100% effective. Unfortunately, the canine distemper vaccine is only available for dogs ages four months and older. While your puppy's under four months, it's essential to pay attention to local wildlife distemper outbreaks and keep them away from unvaccinated dogs.

Prevention includes taking precautions at dog parks, training classes, and doggie daycare. If you notice any symptoms of the paramyxovirus, contact your veterinarian immediately. The vaccination is administered at six weeks and every three to four weeks until they reach 16 weeks. A booster distemper shot is necessary every three years to maintain immunity—gaps in immunization leaves pets susceptible to the virus. 

The best way to keep your furry family member safe is through vaccination. The distemper shot is given from ages six weeks on and requires a booster vaccine every three years. Female dogs shouldn't be vaccinated in late pregnancy or during early lactation. In areas with outbreaks, your veterinarian may recommend earlier booster shots. 


Canine distemper is a dangerous virus that is difficult to treat and is often fatal. Dogs that survive the infection can have permanent nerve damage. In addition, the paramyxovirus is very contagious and can spread among wildlife, exposing dogs. The best way to protect your dog from this virus is with the canine distemper vaccine. 

Canine distemper can be manageable. Survival depends on the virus strain, severity of symptoms, and the strength of the dog's immune system, which is why the canine distemper virus is deadlier in puppies. Some animals can recover in two weeks. However, dogs that recover may experience neurological symptoms for weeks and months after all other signs go away.

What is canine distemper?

Canine distemper is a highly contagious virus that's challenging to treat and causes extreme symptoms in puppies and dogs. In addition, the paramyxovirus spreads through domesticated and wild animals. So, even if you keep your pup away from infected dogs, a walk through the woods during a wildlife outbreak can infect your dog with the often fatal infection.

Can humans be affected by canine distemper?

No. Humans can't get distemper. The virus doesn't travel between humans and animals. However, it's highly contagious between dogs and certain wild animals. To prevent distemper from spreading, get your dog vaccinated and keep up with booster shots.

Is canine distemper treatable?

For the most part, treating canine distemper involves reducing symptoms and making your dog as comfortable as possible during their illness. The severity of the virus usually requires hospitalization and around-the-clock care. The vet will address pain, dehydration, trouble breathing, diarrhea, vomiting, and neurological symptoms.

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Written by Leo Roux

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