Everything You Need to Know About Distemper in Dogs

Distemper in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What Is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a highly contagious virus and potentially fatal disease that affects domestic dogs and other animals like ferrets, skunks, raccoons and other wild animals.

The disease is highly contagious and potentially lethal. A paramyxovirus causes distemper in dogs, and it is closely related to the measles and rinderpest viruses. It causes severe illness in the host by attacking multiple body systems, resulting in a widespread infection that is difficult to treat.

It is caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV), which belongs to the Morbillivirus genus within the Paramyxoviridae family. This blog post will explore the causes, symptoms, and treatments for distemper in dogs, providing you with essential information to help protect your furry friend.


Causes of Distemper in a Dog

Causes of Distemper in a Dog

The primary cause of distemper in dogs is the canine distemper virus. CDV is closely related to the measles virus in humans and the rinderpest virus in cattle. The virus is highly contagious and spreads through direct contact with infected animals or through airborne exposure.


Canine distemper is spread through direct contact or airborne exposure, rather like the common cold in humans. When an infected dog or wild animal coughs, sneezes, or barks, he releases aerosol droplets into the environment, infecting nearby animals and surfaces, like food and water bowls.

The good news is that the virus does not last long in the environment and can be destroyed by most disinfectants. The bad news is that distemper-infected dogs can shed the virus for up to several months, putting dogs around them at risk.

Dogs can contract distemper through various means, including:

  • Direct Contact: Physical contact with an infected animal, such as licking, sniffing, or sharing food and water bowls.
  • Airborne Exposure: Inhalation of respiratory droplets from an infected dog’s cough or sneeze.
  • Contaminated Environments: Exposure to contaminated environments, such as kennels, parks, or grooming areas, can also lead to infection.

Risk Factors

Several factors increase a dog's risk of contracting distemper:

  • Age: Puppies and young dogs are more susceptible than an adult dog, especially if they haven’t been vaccinated.
  • Vaccination Status: Dogs that are not vaccinated or have an incomplete vaccination schedule are at higher risk.
  • Immune System Health: Dogs with weakened immune systems, due to illness or malnutrition, are more vulnerable to this systemic disease.
  • Environment: Dogs in high-density environments, such as shelters or breeding facilities, are at greater risk.

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Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs

Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs

Distemper presents a wide range of symptoms that can affect multiple body systems, including the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. The symptoms can vary in severity and often progress over time in a dog's life.

Early Symptoms and Clinical Signs

In the initial stages, distemper may present symptoms similar to those of other respiratory infections:

  • Fever: An elevated body temperature, often the first sign of infection.
  • Nasal Discharge: Watery to thick, greenish discharge from the nose.
  • Eye Discharge: Watery or pus-like discharge from the eyes.
  • Coughing: Persistent coughing that can be dry or productive, as well as other respiratory signs.
  • Lethargy: A general sense of tiredness and lack of energy.
  • Loss of Appetite: Decreased interest in food and water.

Advanced Symptoms

As the disease progresses, it can affect the gastrointestinal and nervous systems, leading to more severe symptoms:

  • Vomiting and Diarrhea: Often leading to dehydration and weight loss, and other GI symptoms.
  • Hardening of Footpads and Nose (Hyperkeratosis): The skin on the footpads and nose may thicken and harden.
  • Neurological Signs: These can include chronic seizures, muscle twitching, head tilt, circling behavior, partial or complete paralysis, and abnormal behavior.
  • Secondary Infections: Due to a weakened immune system, dogs with distemper are more susceptible to bacterial infection and viral infection.

Chronic Symptoms

In some cases, dogs that survive the initial stages of distemper may develop chronic symptoms:

  • Dental Issues: Enamel hypoplasia, where the enamel on the teeth does not form properly, leading to dental problems.
  • Persistent Neurological Issues: Long-term neurological deficits, such as tremors or motor dysfunction.


Diagnosis of Distemper in Dogs

Veterinary Examination and Laboratory Tests

A thorough veterinary examination is essential for diagnosing distemper. The vet will review the dog’s medical history, vaccination status, and clinical symptoms.

Several tests can confirm the presence of CDV:

  • Blood Tests: To detect the presence of the virus or antibodies against it.
  • PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction): This test detects viral RNA in blood, urine, or swabs from the eyes, nose, or throat.
  • Immunofluorescence Assay: Detects viral antigens in cells collected from conjunctival, nasal, or other swabs.

Differential Diagnosis

Distemper can mimic other diseases, so differential diagnosis is crucial to rule out conditions such as:

  • Canine parvovirus
  • Kennel cough (Bordetella bronchiseptica)
  • Respiratory infections
  • Neurological disorders

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Treatment of Distemper in Dogs

Treatment of Distemper in Dogs

There is no cure or specific treatment for distemper, so treatment focuses on supportive care to manage symptoms and prevent secondary infections. Early and aggressive treatment can improve the chances of recovery.

It is entirely possible to recover from Canine Distemper Disease. Recovery is usually dependent upon the strength of the dog's immune system and the strain of distemper they have contracted. It can take up to 2 months to fully recover.

Supportive Care

  • Fluids and Electrolytes: To prevent dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Nutritional Support: High-quality nutrition to support the immune system.
  • Medications: To control fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and neurological symptoms.

Preventing Secondary Infections

  • Antibiotics: To treat secondary bacterial infections.
  • Antivirals: Though not commonly used, some antivirals may be prescribed in certain cases.

Managing Neurological Symptoms

  • Anticonvulsants: To control seizures.
  • Pain Management: To alleviate discomfort from neurological symptoms.

Long-term Care

  • Rehabilitation: Physical therapy and rehabilitation for dogs with chronic neurological deficits.
  • Monitoring: Regular veterinary check-ups to monitor recovery and manage any ongoing symptoms.

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Prevention of Distemper in Dogs

Prevention of Distemper in Dogs

Prevention is the most effective way to protect your dog from distemper.

Distemper Vaccinations

  • Puppy Vaccination Schedule: Puppies should receive a series of vaccinations starting at 6-8 weeks of age, with boosters every 3-4 weeks until they are 16 weeks old.
  • Adult Dogs: Regular booster shots are recommended to maintain immunity.

Hygiene and Isolation

  • Clean Environments: Regular cleaning and disinfection of living areas, food and water bowls, and bedding.
  • Isolation: Isolate infected dogs to prevent the spread of the virus.

Avoiding High-Risk Areas

  • Limit Exposure: Avoid taking unvaccinated puppies or dogs with weakened immune systems to high-risk areas like dog parks, shelters, or boarding facilities.



Distemper in dogs is a serious and potentially deadly disease, but with proper vaccination, hygiene, and prompt veterinary care, it can be prevented and managed. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options is essential for any dog owner to ensure their pet’s health and well-being. Regular veterinary visits and adherence to vaccination schedules are the best ways to protect your dog from this devastating disease.

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Paige Chernick is a Social Media and Communications expert living in NYC. For 10 years, she ran her own consulting company called PaigeKnowsFirst where she managed social content & strategy for many brands, finding her niche within the pet industry.

Paige has been a guest contributor for several publications and featured in articles on her successes with pets and social media. Paige’s rescue dog, Charlie, famously known by her social media handle @puppynamedcharlie, has accumulated hundreds of thousands of fans and made her a successful pet influencer early on in the game. Paige is also one of the Founders of The Pet Summit, a conference in the pet industry for creators and marketers, where she used her experience to create programs and classes to help guide and teach others.

In 2022, Paige became the Social Media Director for PRIDE+GROOM. She is now the Senior Vice President of Communications and remains very immersed in the pet industry on both the corporate side and the influencer side.