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

Distemper in Dogs

Distemper is a deadly and difficult disease because it looks like many other diseases, including kennel cough. When someone realizes that it isn’t an upper respiratory disease, the virus has already spread and infected other animals. Because the signs of distemper can vary and the virus has similar symptoms to other diseases, it can be difficult to diagnose.

What is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a highly contagious virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of dogs. It can also infect several other species, including ferrets and wild animals such as coyotes, foxes, wolves, skunks and raccoons. It is spread through contact, body secretions, and through the air from dog to dog or wildlife to dog.

Although all dogs can become infected with the disease, puppies younger than six months old are at increased risk. Unvaccinated dogs are also at a higher risk of acquiring the disease.

Distemper Symptoms in Dogs

The first symptom related to the distemper virus is usually eye discharge. Dogs may also suffer from diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy, reduced appetite, coughing, and fever. The later stages of the disease commonly attack the nervous system, resulting in seizures, twitching, or paralysis. Sometimes referred to as the “hard pad disease,” Distemper can also occasionally cause the hardening of nose and foot pads.

Diagnosing Canine Distemper

Veterinarians will diagnose distemper by the dog’s appearance and symptoms, and through laboratory tests such as an analysis of the urine.

Canine Distemper Treatment

There is no specific cure or treatment for the virus, so treatment is focused on general supportive care and alleviating the symptoms. Treatment involves preventing or controlling secondary bacterial infections with antibiotics and giving intravenous fluids if the dog is dehydrated.

It is very important that dogs infected with the virus are separated from other dogs, in hopes of stopping the virus from spreading further.

What Health Problems Does Distemper Cause

Dogs that recover from the distemper virus may end up with irreversible damage to the nervous system or severe tooth enamel damage. They may also develop pneumonia. Some dogs will survive the initial infection and then develop a neurologic disease that causes seizures, behavioral changes, and tics.

Canine Distemper Prevention

Preventing the disease includes vaccination and separating infected animals. Because young puppies are very susceptible to the virus, it is important that they receive a series of vaccinations. Adult dogs should also stay up-to-date on their distemper vaccination.

Cleaning and disinfection are also important steps in preventing the spread of distemper. When choosing a disinfectant, make sure you keep in mind the disease you are targeting and the age of the animals you are caring for.

Use caution when bringing unvaccinated puppies or dogs into public areas where other puppies and dogs gather, such as the groomer and parks. This will help decrease the chance of them having contact with an infected animal. You should also avoid letting your dog have any interaction with wildlife that could potentially contain the virus.

Prevention is always the best option, so be sure to vaccinate all of your animals against this deadly disease. You’ll be glad you did!

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

Article originally written by Donald Bramlage, DVM, Revival’s Former Director of Veterinary Services.

Written by: Marty Greer, DVM

Director of Veterinary Services

Marty Greer, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has 40+ years’ experience in veterinary medicine, with special interests in canine reproduction and pediatrics. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1981. She’s served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2019. In 2023, Dr. Greer was named the Westminster Kennel Club Veterinarian of the Year.

If you need help, call us at 800.786.4751.