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Distemper in dogs

The essentials

  • Distemper is a highly contagious virus – Distemper is easily contractible and can spread in several ways, especially in dogs with weaker immune systems.
  • Wild animals can also spread distemper – Distemper is not only spread among domestic dogs. Wild animals like raccoons and foxes can also spread the virus to your pet.
  • Distemper has no cure – Only supportive care can be administered to an infected dog.

What is canine distemper?

Distemper is a viral disease that dog owners most often hear about from their veterinarians. While highly contagious, canine distemper is preventable with regular vaccines and booster shots. Paramyxovirus is the virus responsible for the disease.

The canine distemper virus attacks many systems within your dog. Symptoms are typically mild, but at the most severe, distemper can be fatal. The best way to protect your dog is through preventative care.

How does canine distemper spread?

There are three main ways your dog can be exposed to the virus. Being aware of these situations can help you protect your pup and prevent infection.

  1. Direct contact with infected animals. The virus spreads through shared surfaces like toys or food and water bowls.
  2. Airborne exposure. Like the common cold in humans, the virus passes through the air by sneezing or coughing. This is the most common route of transmission.
  3. In utero. Newborn puppies could be exposed to distemper through their mom. The virus passes through the placenta if the mother dog has the virus.

Animals that spread distemper

Distemper is not only spread from dog to dog. Wild animals are also susceptible to this disease. Because the virus is highly contagious and airborne, a distemper outbreak in your area through wild animals could still affect your dog, even if they don’t encounter another dog. Animals that spread the virus include:

  • Raccoons
  • Foxes
  • Wolves
  • Coyotes
  • Skunks
  • Ferrets
  • Minks
  • Hyenas
  • Cats
  • Weasels

Symptoms of distemper in dogs

If you suspect your dog of having signs of distemper or possible exposure, contact your vet immediately. Here are some symptoms and warning signs to be aware of:

Stage 1: Early symptoms (3-6 days after infection)

  • Fever. A transient fever usually occurs 3-6 days after your dog has become infected. The fever will last several days before your dog experiences a second fever.
  • Anorexia. Your dog may exhibit a loss of appetite and disinterest in their food or treats.
  • Nasal discharge. The discharge from your dog’s nose may be clear, yellow, or watery.
  • Eye discharge. Look out for a fluid with an off-white, milky-like appearance — it’s known as mucopurulent ocular discharge.
  • Lethargy. Your dog may lack their normal energy or enthusiasm. They’re resting more than usual, and not as playful.
  • Diarrhea or vomiting. Diarrhea or vomiting can be signs of distemper or other illnesses.
  • Coughing and change in respiratory rate. Your dog may exhibit abnormally rapid breathing. Some dogs with distemper can also develop secondary bacterial pneumonia.

Stage 2: Advanced symptoms (6 days and beyond) 

As the virus progresses, so will your dog’s symptoms. In this stage, the virus may begin its attack on the nervous system.

  • Hyperkeratosis. This is the thickening of your dog’s nose or paw pads, which will cause pain and discomfort when they try to walk.
  • Involuntary muscle twitching. Your dog’s limbs twitch, spasm, or move out of their control.
  • Jaw convulsions and drooling. Your dog may start overly drooling and overproducing saliva more than normal. They may repeatedly clench their jaw or chew their gums.
  • Head tilting. This type of head tilt is beyond the normal behavior your dog may exhibit when they are curious or trying to understand what you’re saying. Watch for frequent tilts that seem to be out of their control.
  • Paralysis. Your dog may suddenly lose the ability to walk or move their legs.
  • Seizures. Your dog may lose consciousness and begin to experience uncontrolled or involuntary twitching or stiffening of their body.
  • Circling. Your dog may seem unbalanced when trying to stand or walk and found walking in circles.
  • Repetitive eye movements. Watch for unnatural eye movements, rolling back of the eyes, or rapid movements.

👉 If not treated early, distemper can be fatal. Your dog does not need to display all these symptoms before you should call your vet. When neurologic symptoms are present, the prognosis is grave. Therefore, seeking treatment as soon as symptoms develop is crucial.

Diagnosing distemper in dogs

If you suspect your dog of having the virus, take them immediately to your vet for a proper diagnosis. The above symptoms don’t always signal distemper. To confirm a diagnosis, vets will perform lab tests, which may involve swabbing their eyelids or obtaining a urine or blood sample. The virus has symptoms close to leptospirosis, infectious canine hepatitis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Your vet may order an immunofluorescent assay or reverse transcriptase (RT) PCR testing through the local lab to test for canine distemper.

Distemper treatment options

Unfortunately, there is no cure for distemper. The only option is to prevent reinfection or worsening symptoms. Care may include antibiotics to treat secondary pneumonia, parenteral nutrition, fluid therapy to correct dehydration, anti-nausea, and anti-seizure medication. Many medications prescribed by veterinarians are covered by pet insurance — find out what is (and isn’t) included in our insurance coverage guide.

How to prevent distemper

The best way to prevent distemper is through a series of three distemper/parvo vaccines as a puppy and then an annual or three-year booster thereafter. Since there is no cure, it is best to prevent infection through vaccination.

Vaccinate your dog — Stay educated on puppy vaccinations and vaccinate your adult dog if they are unvaccinated.

Avoid contact with wild animals — If you live near or frequently spend time where other wildlife is present, keep your dog away from their presence. It may be hard to tell if a wild animal is infected, so it’s best to keep your distance.

Stay up to date on vaccinations — Distemper vaccinations also require a booster every one to three years, depending upon the type of vaccine used. Make sure you do not miss these routine boosters to keep building immunity within your dog. If you have a regular clinic or vet, they can send you vaccination reminders.

Frequently asked questions

What causes distemper in dogs?

Distemper is caused by exposure to another infected animal.

Does the distemper virus cause discomfort?

Yes, distemper can lead to vomiting, paralysis, hyperkeratosis, copious eye and nasal discharge, and more.

What do I do if my dog has distemper?

Take them to your veterinarian for a diagnosis immediately. The earlier your dog is diagnosed, the sooner they can be treated and the better the prognosis.

Can a dog recover from canine distemper?

Yes, a dog can survive after being diagnosed with distemper with the right supportive care. While the virus can be fatal, dogs who contract distemper are more likely to survive if they do not develop neurologic symptoms.