Distemper in Dogs – Usual Causes & Prevention Tips

Distemper in Dogs

Nothing is more heartbreaking or distressing than watching your dog cry in pain as the effects of canine distemper course through its body.

Having traveled this road twice with two rescue pups, I know this highly contagious virus is not to be trifled with.

And yet, despite the best veterinary care for both pups, only one survived, and the other did not, passing away in my arms.

Canine distemper is indiscriminate, with puppies younger than four months and older dogs who have not been vaccinated at an increased risk of acquiring the disease.

In fact, canine distemper is often fatal, with a mortality rate of 50% in adult dogs and 80% in puppies.

This article delves into distemper in dogs, the causes and effects of canine distemper, and how to prevent canine distemper and safeguard your pet.

What Is Canine Distemper in Dogs?


Canine distemper is an incurable and often fatal viral disease that affects multiple organs in young dogs that have not been vaccinated against it.

It is caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV), a highly contagious virus related to the measles virus.

The virus attacks a dog’s gastrointestinal, central nervous, and respiratory systems, causing severe illness that is, at best, difficult to treat.

How Is Canine Distemper Spread?

Like humans, domestic dogs and wild animals such as wolves, ferrets, skunks, and raccoons carry viruses, and distemper is one of them. 

Dogs’ distemper is spread by aerosol droplets of infected animals coughing, sneezing or their saliva, urine, and feces coming into direct contact with your dog.

distemper in puppies

The virus can also be spread through contact with surfaces or objects such as shared dog bowls or bedding.

An infected dog can shed the virus for several months, and mother dogs can even pass it through the placenta to their puppies.

While the virus will only survive for a few hours at room temperature, it can remain on surfaces or in the soil for a few weeks in shady places.

And while not contagious to humans, the virus can be transmitted by people who can spread it to other dogs if they have it on their hands or clothing.

What Are the Clinical Symptoms of Canine Distemper?

Not only does canine distemper weaken the immune system, but it also makes it difficult for infected dogs to fight off other opportunistic types of secondary bacterial infection, such as the parvovirus.

Stage One

distemper symptoms in dogs

 The acute stage of the illness typically appears three to six days after infection and typically affects your dog’s multiple body systems.

Once your dog is infected with canine distemper, the virus initially replicates in the respiratory tract’s lymphatic tissue before infecting the urogenital epithelium, optic nerves, gastrointestinal tract, and central nervous system.

The severity of the illness will largely depend on your dog’s age, strong immune system, and level of exposure to the virus.

One of the first telltale symptoms that your dog may have contracted canine distemper is swollen and painful eyes with a watery, white pus-like discharge (conjunctivitis) followed by a nasal discharge (rhinitis).

distemper dog

This is followed by your dog developing a fever that subsides for several days before a second fever occurs.

 Your dog becomes listless and lethargic, with a loss of interest in drinking water and a loss of appetite.

A dry cough is usually noted first, which then develops into a wet cough and can be accompanied by breathing difficulties and a change in your dog’s respiratory rate caused by pneumonia or other secondary bacterial infections.

These secondary bacterial infections can also be responsible for gastrointestinal symptoms such as your dog vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea.

Canine distemper also affects central nervous systems, such as the brain and spinal cord, causing inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and the membrane (meningitis).

Additionally, the virus may cause the paw pads in some dogs to thicken and harden, leading to ‘hard pad disease,’ a canine distemper symptom.

dog distemper

Stage Two

As the virus progresses and attacks the central nervous system, it may lead to some dogs developing neurological signs, which can be distressing for owners to witness.

Infected dogs can develop a series of symptoms such as circling behavior, head tilting, muscle twitching, seizures, repetitive eye movements, convulsions with increased salivation and chewing motions (chewing gum fits), and partial or complete paralysis.

Canine distemper often results in death; if a dog survives, it will usually have irreparable nervous system damage.

What Dogs Are Most at Risk of Canine Distemper?

 All dogs are at risk of distemper no matter the breed. But puppies and unvaccinated dogs are more susceptible to the virus.

How Is Canine Distemper Diagnosed and Treated?

canine distemper symptoms

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment or cure for distemper in dogs. Your vet will run diagnostic tests and look for clinical signs of the virus.

The treatment offered is purely supportive and aimed at reducing the intensity of signs and symptoms.

Veterinarians will treat diarrhea and vomiting in your dog to combat dehydration and offer medication to help control neurological symptoms and prevent secondary infections.

If prompt supportive care for your dog is sought in the early stages, there is a good chance it will make a full recovery depending on the strain of virus it was exposed to, its immune system, and whether it has built up enough antibodies to fight the infection.

When to Put a Dog Down with Distemper?

Despite intensive care and support, some dogs do not recover satisfactorily if neurological signs are severe or continue to worsen.

And unfortunately, treatment for the neurologic problems of canine distemper is usually not successful.

Most veterinarians would recommend that it would be appropriate and in your dog’s best interest to have it euthanized if this is the case.

Preventing Canine Distemper

While not hundred percent foolproof, you can adopt some preventative measures to help prevent distemper in dogs.

how do dogs get distemper
  • Vaccinate. Distemper vaccinations greatly reduce your dog’s chances of becoming sick. 

The canine distemper vaccine is part of the core vaccination protocol recommended by veterinarians, along with canine adenovirus, rabies, and parvovirus vaccines.

  • Protect young puppies. Keep your puppy away from unfamiliar dogs until they have completed their vaccination series.
  • Keep domestic dogs away from wildlife and sick or infected dogs. Ensure your dog does not come into direct contact with a sick dog or wildlife. If your dog is prone to wandering and looking for contact with other animals, read up on when should a male dog be neutered to stop it from roaming.
  • Keep your dog’s food and water bowls inside. Outdoor pet food can attract unwanted wildlife visitors, such as raccoons, ferrets, or skunks, who can contaminate your dog’s bowls when sick with the virus.


Distemper is one of the most serious diseases your dog can get. Yet it is also one of the most preventable.

Your dog has no age-related immunity to canine distemper, so it’s important that you, as a pet owner, ensure they are vaccinated.

And if your dog is prone to wandering, look at getting it neutered.

Research has shown that there are many benefits of neutering dogs as their behavior changes, and they are less likely to get infectious diseases such as parvo and distemper. 

After all, as responsible pet parents, it’s up to us to do the best we can for our faithful companions.

Sue owns three rescues: Sherman, an Olde English Bulldogge cross Boerboel, Maddison, an Africanis, and Boris, an American Staffordshire Terrier. Having owned horses, dogs, cats, and even an African grey parrot over the years, Sue is a passionate advocate for animal rights and welfare, having experienced firsthand the trauma some of her rescues had been exposed to. As a freelance journalist and content writer for over 20 years, her goal has been to craft informative articles on responsible pet ownership and care, both in print and online. When not behind her computer, Sue can be found taking long walks on the beach with her dogs or hanging out in the garden with them.

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