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Canine Distemper: What You Need to Know

Insurance Ranked - Updated January 9, 2023
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Canine Distemper: What You Need to Know

Canine distemper is an extremely contagious and often fatal virus that affects dogs. Here is what you need to know to best protect your dog, including symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and more.

Canine Distemper: What It Is

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is a virus that affects multiple systems in dogs, such as the central nervous system, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems, along with the conjunctival membranes of the eye. Dogs that survive this virus may end up with permanent damage to their nervous system (such as seizures) and chronic pneumonia.

Distemper is seen worldwide and is most common in unvaccinated puppies (especially those under 4 months of age, who are more susceptible to viral diseases), unvaccinated dogs, and rescue dogs, especially in shelters, pet stores, public areas with infected animals, and unregulated breeders. However, it can also be found in wildlife such as ferrets, raccoons, skunks, mink, foxes, coyotes, wolves, seals, and even wildcats like leopards, lions, and tigers. This virus does not affect humans.

The distemper virus is spread directly through bodily fluids (blood, saliva, urine) and through airborne means:  

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing -- these respiratory droplets can spread up to 25 feet away and result in a high exposure risk
  • Nasal discharge
  • Shared food and water bowls (or other objects and surfaces)
  • From mother to puppy (through the placenta)

Symptoms

Symptoms of canine distemper (and the severity of them) may vary depending on the individual dog but early stages of the infection (which can be seen 3 to 6 days after infection) initially impact the respiratory tract and typically include:  

  • Discharge from eyes (yellowish watery to pus-like)
  • Clear nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Pneumonia

The second stage of the infection affects the gastrointestinal tract:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Anorexia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

The advanced stages of the infection affect the central nervous system:

  • Depression
  • Stumbling
  • Partial or full-body paralysis
  • Muscle twitches
  • Head tilts
  • Circling behavior
  • Nystagmus (repetitive eye movements)
  • Convulsions with involuntary chewing and salivation
  • Seizures, which generally begin with  and eventually results in full-body spasms

Distemper in dogs may also cause pustular dermatitis and hyperkeratosis (hardening of the paw pads).

In wild animals, canine distemper virus may show similar symptoms to rabies.

There are a few diseases that cause similar symptoms, so it's important you take your dog to the veterinarian immediately after noticing these signs. Canine distemper can spread rapidly and needs to be treated quickly.

Diagnosis

Unfortunately, there is no specific test that can be done to diagnose canine distemper so your veterinarian will look at the following:

  • Age
  • Symptoms exhibited
  • Lifestyle
  • Environment
  • Health history
  • Vaccination history

Your veterinarian can also perform other tests, such as:

  • Bacterial cultures
  • Biopsies
  • Complete blood cell count (CBC)
  • X-rays

However, it's possible for dogs to still have an infection even if they have negative results on these lab tests.

Treatment

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It's extremely rare for dogs to recover from distemper on their own so a vet appointment is essential.

There is no cure for canine distemper but there are treatments, which typically include the following:

  • Isolation, which prevents the virus from spreading to other animals
  • Supportive care, especially to prevent secondary infections, septicemia, and disseminated intravascular coagulation which is usually done at a hospital
  • Combating vomiting and diarrhea (which can lead to dehydration) with IV fluids, anti-diarrheal drugs, gastrointestinal protectants, and probiotics
  • Treating neurological symptoms such as seizures using anti-seizure medication and chronic monitoring
  • Treating respiratory symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing, or even pneumonia with antibiotics, anti-viral medications, airway dilators, and physical therapy

Unfortunately, the prognosis for dogs surviving canine distemper is poor; there is usually a survival rate of 50%. However, this depends on the severity of the infection, the strain of the virus, the dog's immune system, and whether or not the infection has progressed to the late stages where it affects the central nervous system.

Some dogs may fight off the infection in as little as 10 days or they may recover while dealing with neurological symptoms and teeth abnormalities afterward. It is possible to recover even with neurological issues, but there will usually be long-term effects, some of which aren't noticeable until years later.

Once your dog is stable and your veterinarian allows them to go home, you will need to continue providing care by monitoring their behavior and health and administering any necessary medications.

Prevention

The best way to combat canine distemper is through prevention. The canine distemper vaccination can protect your dog from contracting the virus.

Veterinarians consider the distemper shot to be a core vaccination (along with the canine adenovirus, parvovirus, and rabies vaccine), and this vaccine -- called the DHPP (distemper, adenovirus-2, parainfluenza, and parvovirus vaccine)  or DAPP shot -- protects against distemper and other viruses.

Dogs can receive their first distemper shot at 6 to 8 weeks of age and then every 3 to 4 weeks until they finish the series at 16 to 20 months. Until then, you will need to keep your puppy away from any potentially infectious dogs or environments (dog parks, puppy classes, doggy daycare). (However, nursing puppies receive some antibodies from their mother until they reach around 6 to 12 weeks of age.) They will need to receive a booster one year later and then regularly scheduled shots every 1 to 3 years to keep their immunity. (Pet insurance can help you cover some or all of the costs of prevention and treatment.)

The distemper vaccine is relatively safe but may come with minor side effects such as soreness and mild fever. Serious but rare side effects include anaphylaxis, fever, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and vomiting Talk to your veterinarian if you have any questions regarding the distemper shot.

Dogs should also avoid wildlife and infected animals. (If you have a pet ferret, they can also be vaccinated against distemper to help avoid the spread.)

Infected dogs should be kept separate from other dogs to reduce the risk of spread. A dog who has recovered from distemper and doesn't show clinical signs can still shed the virus for up to 6 months so it's important to keep them away from other dogs for a period of time.

The distemper virus can be easily destroyed by most disinfectants. Make sure that you routinely clean and disinfect your home and your pup's kennel, bedding, and toys to get rid of the virus. 


What are some symptoms of canine distemper?

Signs of infection include discharge from the eyes, fever, coughing, nasal discharge, lethargy, vomiting, and reduced appetite.

Can dogs recover from distemper?

The chance of survival for dogs with distemper depdn on the strain of the virus and strength of the dog's immune system. The survival rate is higher with veterinary care. Dogs may recover in as little as 10 days, although some may have neurological symptoms for a few weeks or months afterwards.

Can a vaccinated dog still get distemper?

While rare, it is still possible. However, a vaccine reduces the chances of your dog becoming infected.

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