Distemper in Dogs

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Distemper in dogs is a highly contagious and sometimes fatal viral disease, but it is preventable. Knowing the symptoms, treatment options, and preventative measures of distemper will help you keep your canine companion healthy and reduce the spread of the virus.

Signs & Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs

Signs and symptoms of distemper in dogs vary widely. Some dogs may present mild signs, while others may show more severe symptoms.

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Eye and/or nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Inflammation of the retina
  • CNS signs (seizures, weakness, difficulty walking, behavioral changes, muscle spasms)
  • Thickened foot pads
  • Dry, painful eyes
  • Changes in tooth enamel

Canine distemper affects the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and central nervous system (CNS) of infected dogs. Typically, respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms occur before CNS symptoms. You may also notice a thickening of the pads of your dog’s paws and nose. This symptom gives distemper its other name, hard pad disease.

Distemper symptoms should always be taken seriously. You should always contact your veterinarian if your unvaccinated puppy or dog shows distemper symptoms, even if they are mild. If left untreated, distemper can lead to permanent CNS damage and may even be fatal.

It’s also important to know that some dogs may not present CNS changes until months or years later; this strain of distemper is known as old dog distemper.

How Did My Dog Get Distemper?

Canine distemper is contagious. The virus is related to the measles virus and spreads through bodily fluids like saliva and urine.

Common causes:

  • Aerosol transmission (coughing, sneezing, etc.)
  • Direct contact with an infected animal
  • Indirect contact with an infected animal through the environment

Veterinarians strongly recommend vaccinations for canine distemper. They’re required for entry into most kennels, dog parks, and canine events. It helps keep puppies and immune-compromised dogs safe. However, young dogs and unvaccinated adults can still contract distemper despite rigorous vaccination protocols.

The canine distemper virus can survive in freezing environments, but sunlight, common disinfectants, high heat, and drying can destroy the virus. Unfortunately, distemper is well-adapted to life in the shade or in kennels where dogs pick it up. Infected dogs then spread the disease by coughing, sneezing, salivating, and urinating.

Your dog can catch distemper by inhaling infectious aerosol particles or by drinking from a water bowl shared with an infected dog. You can spread infection to your dog, too. If you handle a dog with distemper, disinfect your clothes and shoes and wash your hands thoroughly before touching your unvaccinated dog.

Diagnosing Distemper in Dogs

Distemper in dogs is diagnosed through a series of diagnostic procedures, but no one test can determine whether a dog has distemper. Your veterinarian will perform a series of tests to make their diagnosis and rule out other conditions, as additional infections and diseases can complicate the process.

Other tests may include blood work to measure your dog’s white blood cells, look for protein abnormalities, and test for canine distemper antibodies. In some cases, a spinal tap to test cerebrospinal fluid may be recommended, and in others, radiographs of your dog’s chest and abdomen may be recommended if your dog presents with gastrointestinal or respiratory symptoms. Other tests may be needed to rule out other diseases and establish the best course of treatment for your dog.

Treating Your Dog for Distemper

Supportive care predominately treats canine distemper. Veterinarians will do all they can to support your dog as the virus runs its course, but no medication can stop the virus. Your dog will be isolated from other animals to avoid spreading the virus, and in many cases, will need to be hospitalized.

Supportive care may include intravenous fluids, medications to stop vomiting and reduce fevers and pain, and antibiotics to treat any secondary infections. In dogs with respiratory symptoms, your veterinarian may perform physical therapy and nebulization to help loosen and remove thickened secretions from your dog’s lungs.

If your dog exhibits CNS symptoms, he may also need anticonvulsant medications to manage seizures. In some cases, dogs need steroids to reduce CNS inflammation.

Is there a cure for Distemper?

There is no cure for canine distemper. Veterinarians treat patients with supportive care to give their bodies the best chance at a full recovery. The sooner your dog is diagnosed and treated, the better the prognosis.

Is Canine Distemper Contagious For Humans or Other Pets?

Distemper in dogs is not contagious to humans, cats, birds, and most other household pets. However, ferrets can contract distemper from infected dogs and should be vaccinated routinely and kept separate from potentially infectious dogs.

Distemper can be transmitted to other dogs. If your dog has distemper, avoid contact with unvaccinated dogs. The last thing you want is to introduce the virus to your friend’s new puppy or immunosuppressed senior dog.

What is the cost of treating canine distemper?

Treating canine distemper can be pricey. Diagnostic procedures, medications, and the cost of hospitalization itself can add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Talk to your veterinarian about your treatment options and your dog’s prognosis.

Recovery and Management of Canine Distemper

Recovery from canine distemper may depend on the severity of your dog’s symptoms and on how quickly the diagnosis occurs. It can take some time for a dog to recover, and in many cases, they may never recover fully. Dogs with CNS symptoms often have an uncertain prognosis. In some cases, medication can manage CNS symptoms, but some dogs do not respond to supportive therapy and may need to be euthanized. Your veterinarian will discuss your dog’s prognosis with you after making a full assessment of her health. Realistic expectations on your part will help you make the best choices for your dog.

Dogs who only present with respiratory or gastrointestinal signs have a better prognosis. However, these dogs can develop CNS signs later, so you will need to observe your dog carefully for changes in behavior.

Even dogs that make a full recovery pose challenges. Infected dogs can shed the virus for several weeks following the initial infection. You will need to take precautions to reduce the chances of your dog infecting others. Steer clear of public places where dogs gather, and ask your veterinarian for advice about the best cleaning products to use in your home.

Preventing Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is a preventable disease. Veterinarians strongly advise all dogs be vaccinated for distemper, which helps reduce the risk of infection for dogs that are unable to receive the vaccine, like young puppies and immunosuppressed adult dogs.

Unvaccinated dogs require vigilance. Avoid taking unvaccinated dogs to dog parks, boarding facilities, or any place where dogs gather. Ask your veterinarian about other ways to reduce your dog’s risk of infection.

Is there a vaccine for distemper?

Yes. The distemper vaccine is a core vaccine, which means it is considered an essential vaccine for your dog’s health, like the rabies and the parvovirus vaccines.

Ideally, puppies receive a series of distemper vaccines every three to four weeks beginning at 6-8 weeks of age and ending at 16-20 weeks old. The full series needs to be completed for full immunity. Your dog will then need periodic distemper vaccinations for the rest of his adult life. Check out our article on vaccine schedules for a full list of all core and optional vaccines your dog may need.


Distemper in dogs is a highly contagious and dangerous disease, but it is preventable. Vaccinating your dog is the best way to avoid a case of canine distemper in your household, so talk to your veterinarian about getting your dog on an appropriate vaccination schedule at your next visit.

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