Diseases, Pet Care Basics, Shelter and Rescue Resources, Vaccines

Canine Distemper in a Humane Society

Distemper is an old disease that has not changed much over the last 20 years. It is important to note that with Parvo outbreaks, we are beginning to see more Distemper. This can happen in kennel housing when we concentrate on building Parvo immunity, and we fall behind in preventing Distemper. Occasionally, we’ll see Parvo puppies recover and then come down with Distemper.

What is Canine Distemper

Canine Distemper can also infect several other species, including ferrets and wild animals like coyotes, foxes, wolves, skunks and raccoons. Distemper virus cannot persist in the environment long, and it has to be spread from dog to dog or wildlife to dog.

Although Distemper can affect dogs of any age, it is more likely to affect puppies than older dogs. The virus is spread through the air and by contact with an infected animal. It attacks a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems.

Signs of Canine Distemper

Distemper can cause a variety of clinical signs, which can make it difficult to diagnose. Dogs may have a fever, lack of appetite, or mild depression. Other dogs may also have nasal and ocular discharge, coughing, depression, vomiting and diarrhea.

The Distemper infection can lead to a severe, multisystemic disease that primarily affects the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and nervous systems. Sometimes dogs will survive the initial infection and then develop a neurologic disease that causes seizures, behavioral changes, or tics. Dogs may also develop retinal damage, corneal discoloration, or hardened skin on the foot pads and nose.

How Do You Prevent Distemper From Spreading?

Two factors contribute to the difficulty in controlling:

  1. Distemper looks like many other diseases, including Kennel Cough complex. Once we realize it is not an upper respiratory disease, we’ve already spread it. Coughing dogs can spread the virus 20 feet with a single cough.
  2. Most of our kennels do not have barriers across the aisle to the next set of runs. To stop the outbreak in rows of dogs that are looking at each other, we have found it useful to hang shower curtains down the center of the aisle. This barrier is inexpensive and effective. Once the outbreak is under control, it’s OK to remove them. It is always challenging with kennels that have chain link dividers—solid walls are much better at limiting the spread of viruses.


There is no specific treatment for Distemper. Supportive care, fluids, control of the symptoms, and antibiotics may result in a recovery.

How to Prevent Distemper in Dogs

Prevention is the best way to deal with Distemper and includes finding the cause of the outbreak, vaccinating, and disinfecting.

Causes of the break need to be determined so you can avoid a re-occurrence. We know it is brought in with a dog that was not protected.

Vaccinating for Distemper will go a long way in prevention. Make sure you know where the vaccination breakdown was and make sure everyone understands the issue. Not vaccinating effectively will only end up in a repeat outbreak. We want a vaccine for Distemper before the dog breathes the air of the kennel! It’s important to not let one dog slip through.

The key to preventing viral diseases in the shelter is to keep your dogs’ immunity level higher than the wild virus level. Cleaning and disinfection is so important at keeping wild virus numbers low in the shelter. It is also important to isolate any infected animals before the virus can spread.

Distemper outbreaks are heartbreaking so keep your head up – you will get through it. Find the cause and correct the issue to prevent a repeat performance.

If you need help with developing a canine distemper prevention plan, call us at 800.786.4751.

Written by: Donald Bramlage, DVM

Donald Bramlage, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, practiced veterinary medicine for 30+ years and is known for his work in managing parvovirus. He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University in 1985. He served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services from 2011 until his retirement in 2019.

If you need help, call us at 800.786.4751.