A black dog sitting on a couch, painted in watercolor.

Canine Distemper: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

What is it?

Canine Distemper is a highly contagious viral disease that affects dogs of all ages. It is caused by the Canine Distemper virus, which is spread through contact with bodily fluids such as saliva, urine, or blood. The virus attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of dogs, and can lead to severe illness or death if left untreated.

How is it Treated?

There is no specific cure for Canine Distemper, and treatment is primarily supportive care to manage the dog’s symptoms and prevent secondary infections. Antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent or treat bacterial infections that can occur as a result of a weakened immune system. In severe cases, hospitalization and intensive care such as intravenous fluids, nutritional support, and oxygen therapy may be necessary to help the dog recover.

Breed Predispositions

All dog breeds are susceptible to Canine Distemper, but puppies and dogs with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of contracting the disease. Dogs that have not been vaccinated against the virus are also more likely to get infected.

As pet owners, we do our best to keep our furry friends healthy and happy. However, sometimes despite our efforts, our pets can fall ill with serious conditions that can be difficult to manage. One day, a pet owner named Alex noticed that his beloved German Shepherd, Rocky, was showing signs of lethargy, fever, coughing, and discharge from the eyes and nose. After taking Rocky to the veterinarian, it was discovered that he had Canine Distemper, a highly contagious viral disease that affects dogs of all ages and can be fatal if left untreated.

Canine distemper is a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening viral disease affecting domestic dogs and wild animals worldwide. As a responsible pet owner, it’s crucial to understand the causes, symptoms, and preventative measures associated with this severe illness. 

Domestic and wild animals can fall victim to canine distemper, making it essential to be aware of its risks to puppies, dogs, and wildlife. Infected dogs can shed the virus, contributing to its spread among other animals. In addition, the virus initially replicates in the lymphatic tissue and can be particularly dangerous to puppies, underscoring the importance of early vaccination and preventive measures.

Older dogs may also be susceptible to this illness, so vigilance is crucial for dogs of all ages. Canine distemper does not discriminate between domestic dogs or wild animals, meaning any creature can be affected and contribute to its spread. Being aware of the risks of canine distemper, and taking precautions, such as vaccination, can help protect your dog from this disease and other illnesses like canine parvovirus.

What Causes Distemper in Dogs?

Canine distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV), a single-stranded, enveloped RNA virus belonging to the Morbillivirus genus within the Paramyxoviridae family. 

Distemper in dogs is related to the viruses responsible for measles in humans. The virus primarily targets dogs’ respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. One factor that increases pets’ chances of contracting the disease is direct contact with infected dogs or indirect contact with contaminated objects, such as food, bowls, toys, or bedding.

causes of distemper in dogs

Another cause of canine distemper is contact with a wild animal carrying the virus, such as raccoons, foxes, or skunks, as they can also spread the virus to domestic dogs. The virus can be transmitted through the air via respiratory droplets from an infected dog’s cough or sneeze, increasing the likelihood of spreading the virus among animals.

When a dog is infected with CDV, it can experience a range of symptoms of distemper, including fever, nasal and eye discharge, coughing, sneezing, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and neurological signs like seizures, tremors, or paralysis. The virus initially attacks the lymph nodes before spreading to other body parts.

Although the primary cause of canine distemper is CDV, a secondary bacterial infection may develop due to the weakened immune system, further complicating the disease; puppies and unvaccinated dogs are at the highest risk of contracting the disease. 

Vaccination remains the most effective method for preventing canine distemper and maintaining immunity against the virus, thus increasing your pet’s chances of staying healthy. It is essential to be aware of the symptoms of distemper to protect your dog from this dangerous disease and limit its transmission to other animals, including wild animals.

Symptoms of Canine Distemper

The most common symptoms of canine distemper caused by a virus include:

  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • coughing
  • runny nose and eyes
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • seizures
  • paralysis
  • neurological disorders

Pups infected with distemper may also develop “hard pad disease” or lesions on their feet or legs due to the virus attacking nerve cells. If left untreated, these potential CDV symptoms can worsen over time, emphasizing the importance of seeking veterinary care promptly if you suspect your pup may have been exposed to the canine distemper infection.

First Stage Symptoms:

Stage One of Canine Distemper is the most critical and time-sensitive phase. Signs of canine distemper can include:

  • watery or pus-like discharge from bloodshot eyes
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • clear nasal discharge that can quickly lead to thick mucousy nasal discharge and more severe symptoms
a dog not eating food

Sometimes, the virus can pass through the placenta to their puppies. It is essential to seek veterinary care immediately during this stage, as no treatments are available to cure canine distemper. However, with a prompt diagnosis and supportive care, many pups can recover fully after being adequately cared for by a veterinarian.

Remaining vigilant to detect any signs of distemper early on is crucial. Vaccinations protect against the virus and help prevent its spread further. By being proactive with your pet’s healthcare needs, you can ensure their safety and well-being for many years!

Second Stage Symptoms:

Stage Two of Canine Distemper can be challenging for both pet and owner. At this stage, the virus has spread to the respiratory system, causing:

  • severe coughing
  • sneezing
  • nasal discharge
  • difficulty breathing

If left untreated at this stage, the virus can quickly become fatal due to pneumonia or other complications. Neurologic signs may also appear.

To begin treatment, you must seek veterinary care as soon as possible if you suspect your dog may have distemper. Treatment typically involves antibiotics and supportive care, such as IV fluids, to keep your pup hydrated and healthy. With prompt diagnosis and proper treatment, many dogs can fully recover from distemper in Stage Two.

Diagnosis of Canine Distemper

Diagnosing canine distemper can be challenging, as the symptoms often overlap with those of other illnesses. Consequently, veterinarians rely on clinical signs, patient history, and laboratory tests to accurately diagnose the disease.

  1. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test: This sensitive molecular test detects the presence of the virus’s genetic material in bodily fluids, such as blood or nasal and ocular secretions. A positive PCR result strongly indicates an active distemper infection.
  2. Serology: Veterinarians may perform a serology test to detect the presence of antibodies against the canine distemper virus in the dog’s blood. A rising antibody titer over time suggests an active infection or recent exposure to the virus. 
  3. Cytology: Examining cell samples from the dog’s conjunctiva, nasal discharge, or cerebrospinal fluid under a microscope may reveal the presence of viral inclusion bodies or other cellular changes indicative of a distemper infection.
  4. Additional tests: Veterinarians may also run blood tests to assess the dog’s overall health, including a complete blood count (CBC) and blood chemistry profile. These tests can help identify secondary infections or other health issues that may be present alongside distemper.

It is important to note that no single test is definitive for diagnosing canine distemper, and veterinarians often use a combination of these diagnostic tools, along with clinical signs and patient history, to make an accurate diagnosis. In addition, the dog’s strength plays a role in its recovery, and early detection and supportive care are crucial in managing the disease.

In cases where dogs are around other canines, it is essential to be vigilant and monitor for any symptoms, as distemper can spread rapidly between a healthy dog and an infected dog. Taking appropriate precautions can help protect your pet and improve their chances of recovery.

Treatment for Canine Distemper

Treatment for canine distemper primarily involves supportive care to manage the symptoms and help the dog’s immune system combat the virus. As there is no specific treatment or cure for canine distemper, veterinarians focus on alleviating the clinical signs and preventing secondary infections. This may include:

treatment for canine distemper
  • Administering fluids to combat dehydration
  • Providing electrolyte supplementation
  • Ensuring proper nutrition to maintain the dog’s strength

In addition to supportive care, veterinarians may prescribe:

  • Antibiotics address secondary bacterial infections due to a weakened immune system.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications and anticonvulsants may be used to manage inflammation and seizures if these symptoms present.

In severe cases, hospitalization and intensive care may be necessary to monitor the dog’s vital signs and provide oxygen therapy or other life-saving measures. However, the most effective way to prevent canine distemper is through vaccination. Therefore, the distemper vaccine is crucial to a dog’s routine healthcare plan. In addition, it is essential to ensure that dogs receive their initial vaccinations and regular booster shots to maintain immunity against the disease.

How to Prevent Canine Distemper

Preventing canine distemper is crucial for maintaining your pup’s safety and health. Vaccination is the most effective method to minimize the risk of your dog contracting this potentially devastating infectious disease caused by a virus. Puppies should receive their first vaccination at 6-7 weeks old, followed by booster shots every 3-4 weeks until 16 weeks.

For adult dogs, boosters can be administered yearly or every three years, depending on your veterinarian’s recommendation. Additionally, it’s vital to stay on top of other preventive measures, such as regular checkups, parasite control, and monitoring contact with wildlife, to ensure optimal health for your pup.

Taking the time to safeguard your pup from canine distemper is one of the most critical responsibilities of a pet parent. While this virus can have severe consequences and dogs can shed the virus, proper prevention will help ensure your pup stays healthy and happy for many years. In case of symptoms, seek immediate veterinary attention to prevent distemper outbreaks and facilitate recovery from canine distemper.

Frequently Ask Questions

While canine distemper is known to affect dogs, there is no evidence to suggest that it can be transmitted from dogs to humans. This is because the virus is species-specific, meaning it can only affect certain types of animals.

So, to answer whether canine distemper can spread to humans, the answer is no. However, it’s important to stay vigilant and take steps to protect ourselves and our pets from the dangers of infectious diseases.

Canine distemper is a viral disease caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV). The virus primarily affects dogs but can infect other animals, such as ferrets, raccoons, foxes, and large cats. While there are no distinct “types” of canine distemper, the disease can manifest in different forms or stages, depending on which body systems are affected and the severity of the infection:

  1. Respiratory form: In the initial stage of the infection, the virus targets the respiratory system, causing symptoms such as sneezing, nasal discharge, coughing, and difficulty breathing. The respiratory form of the disease can be mistaken for other respiratory infections like kennel cough.
  2. Gastrointestinal form: As the disease progresses, it can affect the gastrointestinal system, leading to symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. These symptoms can result in weight loss and weakness in affected dogs.
  3. Neurological form: In severe cases, the canine distemper virus can infect the central nervous system, resulting in neurological symptoms such as muscle twitching, seizures, imbalance, and paralysis. In some cases, neurological signs can appear weeks or months after initial recovery from the respiratory and gastrointestinal forms of the disease.
  4. Systemic or “hard pad” form: This form of distemper is characterized by the thickening and hardening of the footpads and nose due to the hyperkeratosis of the skin. While less common, this manifestation is often associated with more severe chronic disease.

It is important to note that the severity and progression of canine distemper can vary between individual dogs. Not all dogs will exhibit all forms or symptoms of the disease. Vaccination prevents canine distemper, with puppies receiving vaccinations and regular booster shots.


One of the most painful symptoms of canine distemper is the neurological damage it can cause. As the virus attacks the central nervous system, it can lead to muscle tremors, twitching, and even seizures. These can be incredibly distressing for dogs, especially as they may not understand what is happening to them.

Additionally, the respiratory symptoms associated with canine distemper can also be painful. The virus can cause a persistent cough, sneezing, and difficulty breathing, making it hard for dogs to catch their breath and causing discomfort in their throat and lungs.

However, it’s essential to note that not all dogs will experience severe pain during their battle with distemper. Some dogs may only exhibit minor symptoms, while others may be able to bounce back relatively quickly with proper treatment and care.

It is crucial to consult a veterinarian if you suspect your dog has distemper, as the disease can be life-threatening without proper medical care. Home treatment is not recommended, and professional veterinary care is necessary to manage the symptoms and provide the best possible support for your dog’s recovery.

That being said, if your dog has been diagnosed with distemper and is undergoing veterinary treatment, there are some steps you can take to provide supportive care at home:

  1. Follow your veterinarian’s advice: Always follow the recommendations and instructions given by your veterinarian, including administering any prescribed medications on time and monitoring your dog’s condition closely.
  2. Keep your dog comfortable: Provide a warm, quiet, and comfy space to rest. Ensure their bedding is clean and dry.
  3. Maintain proper hydration: Encourage your dog to drink water by offering it frequently. Sometimes, your veterinarian may recommend an electrolyte solution to help maintain hydration and electrolyte balance.
  4. Provide a nutritious diet: Offer small, frequent meals of easily digestible, high-quality food. Sometimes, your veterinarian may recommend a specific diet tailored to your dog’s needs during recovery.
  5. Keep your dog’s environment clean: Regularly clean and disinfect your dog’s living area, food and water bowls, and toys to prevent the spread of the virus and minimize the risk of secondary infections.
  6. Isolate your dog: Keep your dog separated from other pets to prevent the spread of the virus. Distemper is highly contagious, and unvaccinated or partially vaccinated animals are especially at risk.
  7. Monitor your dog’s condition: Regularly assess your dog’s symptoms and general well-being. If you notice any worsening of their condition or the development of new symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Remember, treating distemper at home without professional veterinary care is not recommended. Always consult a veterinarian if you suspect your dog has a distemper, and follow their guidance throughout treatment.

While vaccinations significantly reduce the risk of a dog contracting distemper, it is still possible, albeit rare, for a vaccinated dog to contract the disease. No vaccine provides 100% protection, and several factors can contribute to a vaccinated dog becoming infected:

  1. Vaccine efficacy: The efficacy of vaccines can vary, and some dogs may not develop a strong enough immune response to protect them from the virus completely.
  2. Vaccination schedule: The effectiveness of a vaccine depends on the dog receiving the entire series of vaccinations and booster shots according to the recommended schedule. A dog’s immunity may be compromised if it misses a vaccination or booster.
  3. Timing: Puppies are particularly vulnerable to distemper because their immune systems are still developing. While they receive some immunity from their mother’s milk, this protection starts to wane before the vaccination series is complete. There may be a brief window during which the puppy is susceptible to the virus.
  4. Immune system function: Dogs with weakened immune systems due to illness or medications may not respond as effectively to vaccinations, leaving them more vulnerable to infections.
  5. Vaccine storage and handling: If a vaccine is improperly stored or handled, it may lose effectiveness, leading to inadequate protection for the dog.

While a vaccinated dog can contract distemper, it is essential to remember that vaccinations are the best defense against the disease. In addition, vaccinated dogs that contract distemper generally experience milder symptoms and have a better prognosis than unvaccinated dogs. Therefore, following your veterinarian’s recommendations for vaccinations and booster shots is crucial to maximizing your dog’s protection against distemper and other preventable diseases.

There’s no exact timeline for a dog recovering from the Distemper virus. Some dogs may clear it out in weeks, whereas others may take months. It’s essential to remember that once a dog has contracted the virus, it can be difficult to eradicate it.

Day 1 begins the incubation period, which can last up to two weeks before any signs of the disease appear. After that, the virus starts to multiply in the lymphatic tissues of the respiratory tract and eyes, causing fever and increased mucus production. Your pet may also appear lethargic and lose interest in food and water.

By Day 5, the virus starts to invade other organs, such as the gastrointestinal and urinary tract, leading to vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms can be mistaken for other common illnesses, making it all the more important to seek veterinary attention if you suspect a distemper.

Day 8 is when neurological symptoms start to appear, which can be the most devastating aspect of the disease. Your pet may exhibit tremors, seizures, or even paralysis and difficulty standing or walking. These symptoms can be irreversible if not treated promptly, so staying vigilant is crucial.

On Day 10, the virus attacks the immune system, making your pet vulnerable to secondary infections such as pneumonia or bacterial infections. This stage of the disease can be fatal, and it’s vital to monitor your pet’s temperature, breathing rate, and overall well-being.

By Day 15, the disease has either fully manifested, leading to a full recovery or death. If your pet has survived this far into the disease, it may still require extended hospitalization and supportive care to regain strength and heal.

The survival of dogs with distemper without treatment is a highly debated topic among veterinarians and pet owners. Less than 50% of the adult dogs that contract the disease die from it. While some believe that dogs can recover from the illness without medical intervention, others argue that the likelihood of survival is very low.

One of the main arguments in favor of dogs surviving distemper without treatment is that the virus is not always fatal. Dogs with robust immune systems can sometimes fight off the disease independently, although this is rare. In most cases, however, the virus attacks the dog’s nervous system, leading to seizures, paralysis, and even death.

Another factor that can impact a dog’s likelihood of surviving distemper without treatment is age. Puppies and young dogs are particularly vulnerable to the virus and are less likely to recover without medical intervention. As a result, pet owners are encouraged to have their pets vaccinated against the disease as early as possible.

Canine distemper is a highly contagious viral disease that affects dogs and other animals. The virus attacks various systems in the dog’s body, including the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. The virus can be deadly to dogs due to several reasons:

  1. Weakened immune system: Distemper severely weakens the dog’s immune system, making it susceptible to secondary bacterial infections. These infections can lead to pneumonia and other severe respiratory issues that can be fatal.
  2. Gastrointestinal issues: Distemper affects the dog’s gastrointestinal tract, causing vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Severe dehydration can lead to organ failure, shock, and death.
  3. Neurological complications: The virus can also attack the dog’s nervous system, causing neurological symptoms such as seizures, tremors, and paralysis. In severe cases, these complications can be life-threatening.
  4. Encephalitis: In some cases, distemper can cause brain inflammation (encephalitis), leading to severe neurological symptoms, coma, and death.
  5. Systemic failure: The combined effects of distemper on various systems within the dog’s body can ultimately result in multiple organ failures and death.

It is essential to vaccinate dogs against distemper to protect them from this deadly disease. Early detection and treatment can improve the chances of survival, but even with treatment, the prognosis for dogs with distemper is often poor.

When a dog contracts distemper, it can experience many symptoms that affect multiple body systems. The severity of symptoms can vary, and some dogs may not show any signs of illness. However, in general, the following stages and symptoms are observed in dogs with distemper:

  1. Initial symptoms: Typically, within one to two weeks after exposure to the virus, the dog may develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, and discharge from the nose and eyes. These initial symptoms may last a few days and can be mild or severe.
  2. Gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms: As the virus spreads, it can cause inflammation and infection in the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Dogs may develop coughing, labored breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. In some cases, secondary bacterial infections can occur, making the symptoms worse and harder to treat.
  3. Neurological symptoms: In the later stages of the disease, the distemper virus can affect the nervous system, causing symptoms such as twitching, tremors, seizures, weakness, and paralysis. This stage of the disease is often the most severe and can be fatal.
  4. Long-term effects: Some dogs may recover from distemper, but they can still suffer from long-term effects, including persistent neurological issues like tremors or seizures and hardening of the footpads and nose (hard pad disease).

The duration of distemper in dogs can vary depending on age, immune system, and overall health. The different stages of distemper can generally progress over several weeks to a few months. Here’s a rough timeline:

  1. Incubation period: After exposure to the virus, it usually takes 1-2 weeks for symptoms to appear.
  2. Initial symptoms: The initial flu-like symptoms, such as fever, lethargy, and discharge from the nose and eyes, may last a few days to a week.
  3. Gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms: These symptoms can persist for several weeks and may be complicated by secondary bacterial infections.
  4. Neurological symptoms: Neurological issues may develop during or after the other symptoms and can last for several weeks or even months. In some cases, dogs may have permanent neurological damage.

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is an RNA virus, which means it has a higher mutation rate than DNA viruses. This can lead to the emergence of new strains over time. Researchers have identified several strains of CDV, which can vary in virulence and geographical distribution. These strains are grouped into different lineages based on their genetic makeup.

Some known CDV lineages include America-1, America-2, Europe, Asia-1, Asia-2, European wildlife, Europe and Arctic-like. In addition, new strains of the virus may emerge as the virus continues to evolve and mutate, which can pose challenges for diagnostic testing, vaccination, and disease management.

Monitoring and understanding the genetic diversity of CDV is essential for developing effective vaccines and control measures. Veterinarians and researchers regularly study emerging strains to track their spread and assess their potential impact on canine populations. To protect your dog from distemper, it’s crucial to keep their vaccinations up to date and follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for preventive care.

Disclaimer: The information provided on this veterinary website is intended for general educational purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult a licensed veterinarian for any concerns or questions regarding the health and well-being of your pet. This website does not claim to cover every possible situation or provide exhaustive knowledge on the subjects presented. The owners and contributors of this website are not responsible for any harm or loss that may result from the use or misuse of the information provided herein.

Similar Posts