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What Is Distemper In Dogs?

Two socialized dogs

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is a highly contagious viral disease in dogs. Considered incurable and often fatal, distemper is one of the most serious diseases for your canine companion. Fortunately, thanks to extremely effective and widely available vaccines, it is also one of the most preventable diseases. 

Table of contents 

What is distemper? 

Distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus closely related to the measles and rinderpest viruses, according to the American Kennel Club. A multisystemic disease, it targets a pup’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems. 

Dog owners are likely familiar with distemper due to its inclusion in the “DHPP” group of vet-recommended vaccinations. Given to puppies starting as early as six to eight weeks, these vaccines include distemper, adenovirus (hepatitis), parainfluenza, and parvovirus. According to the American Kennel Club, DHPP boosters should be given to dogs every one to two years throughout their lives. This continuously protects them from these extremely dangerous illnesses. Some literature suggests that after the initial puppy series, most dogs have an every-three-years vaccination schedule. If boarding your dog, please check with requirement by your kennel, as this can vary. 

Distemper is not just for dogs. Foxes, wolves, racoons, skunks, and even pet ferrets can also contract distemper. With this, it is particularly important to keep your pup up to date on their shots if there is an outbreak of distemper within the local wildlife population. 

Thanks to highly effective vaccines, canine distemper is not very common in domestic dog populations. The virus is more common in populations with low vaccination rates, including stray dogs and wild animals. In addition to these groups, young puppies and other dogs with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to contracting and having a serious case of distemper. 

How does distemper spread? 

Dog with canine distemper jumps with open mouth at park

Distemper spreads through direct contact and airborne exposure to the virus. Coughing, sneezing, and even barking in close proximity can transmit the virus from an infected dog or wild animal to a susceptible dog. Transmission can also occur through the shared use of water and food bowls. Infected mothers can also share the disease with their pups through their placenta. 

The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine warns that while distemper is shed the most in respiratory secretions like saliva, the virus is present in all excretions. This includes vomit, urine, and feces. It is also important to note that infected dogs can shed the virus for several months, so just because symptoms may have subsided, a recovered dog can still pass distemper along to others. 

Symptoms of canine distemper virus 

All dogs are unique, so symptoms of distemper in pups can vary. The American Veterinary Medical Association notes that watery or pus-like eye discharge and a fever may be the earliest clinical signs of the disease. Other symptoms can include: 

  • Nasal discharge 
  • Coughing 
  • Lethargy 
  • Reduced appetite 
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 

In more advanced cases of canine distemper in which the virus has attacked the central nervous system, neurological impacts are possible. This can cause circling, head tilting, muscle twitching, seizures or convulsions, and excessive salivation. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, serious cases of distemper can cause long-term muscle twitches and recurrent seizures in dogs who do recover. 

It is also possible for distemper to lead to hyperkeratosis, or thickening of skin, in a pup’s paw pads. For this reason, distemper is the “hard pad disease.” 

Individual symptoms of distemper in dogs can easily be confused with clinical signs of other diseases. However, few diseases have the simultaneous occurrence of these symptoms, as is the case with distemper. 

Treating distemper 

Unfortunately, there is no cure for canine distemper virus. Treatment strategies for the illness provide supportive care and reduce the intensity of symptoms. 

Veterinary experts at VCA Animal Hospitals note that vets are likely to recommend hospitalization, during which time pups can receive intravenous fluid therapy. Vets may also prescribe symptomatic treatment vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, etc. Unfortunately, antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. These medications address secondary bacterial infections that often occur as a result of distemper.  

How can pet parents prevent canine distemper? 

As you can see, canine distemper is incredibly dangerous. The disease has a 50 percent mortality rate among adult dogs and an 80 percent mortality rate among young puppies, according to the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab. With this, it is extremely important for dog parents to understand the risks and know how to prevent their pup from contracting distemper. 

  1. Stay up to date on vaccines 
    The American Kennel Club encourages that the number one way to prevent dogs from catching distemper is to vaccinate against the disease. Canine distemper vaccines are highly effective and widely available. In fact, they are a core vaccination, in addition to hepatitis, parvovirus, and rabies. Puppies get distemper vaccines at eight, 12, and 16 weeks of age along with other puppy vaccines. VCA Animal Hospitals recommends that boosters for these diseases should also be given to adult dogs throughout their lives. Staying up to date on vaccines by getting routine boosters and not allowing for too long of gaps between shots can save your pup’s life. 
  2. Use caution when socializing puppies 
    Socialization is critical to helping your puppy grow into a confident and well-adjusted dog. However, it takes a while for a puppy’s immune system to fully mature. Additionally, completing full courses of necessary puppy vaccines takes months. Until then, puppies are at an increased risk of contracting diseases and experiencing particularly severe symptoms. So, how do you balance your pup’s safety with their need for socialization? 
    While your young puppy is still in the midst of receiving their vaccines, you should be careful about where and with what dogs your little friend socializes. Be sure that any dog your puppy interacts with is vaccinated to ensure they cannot spread infection to your pooch. Because canine distemper can be found in feces and urine, pet parents should also be cautious about where they take their pup and what they sniff out (and or eat). Trying to limit the risk of your pup coming into contact with distemper before they’re fully vaccinated is challenging but incredibly important. 
  3. Avoid contact with wild animals 
    Because wild animals like foxes and racoons can carry distemper, it is important to keep your pet away from wildlife. Avoiding contact with these animals will help prevent dogs from getting dangerously sick with distemper. 

Any health or medical information in ElleVet blogs is from a variety of public and reputable sources. This information is intended as an educational resource only and is not a substitute for expert professional care.