Distemper in Dogs: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

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As a dog parent, you may have heard of a disease called distemper after speaking with your veterinarian. But what is distemper? And is it preventable? Knowing the basics about distemper, such as what distemper symptoms in dogs look like and when to seek medical attention, can help to keep your pup safe from this common disease.

What Is Distemper?

In dogs and other mammals, distemper is a contagious and sometimes fatal viral disease. The name of the disease comes from the virus that causes the problem: canine distemper virus (CDV). CDV is closely related to the measles virus in humans. The distemper virus affects several different carnivorous mammals and it's very common in raccoons, skunks and foxes. It's also been seen in hyenas, weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets, mink, wolverines and big cats in zoos. Most carnivorous mammals can be infected with some form of the distemper virus, and distemper itself is considered to be a global disease.

Distemper can be transmitted to your pup in a few different ways — via airborne exposure when droplets from an infected animal's nose contaminate their environment, through direct exposure with an infected animal or in utero through the placenta.

Distemper Symptoms in Dogs

Distemper can affect many parts of a dog's body, but it usually impacts the respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological systems. Additional areas that can be affected by distemper include the eyes, genitals, teeth, paw pad and nose skin, and endocrine (glands), urinary and immune systems.

Young dogs are much more susceptible to distemper than adult dogs. The first sign of distemper is usually a fever accompanied by discharge from the nose and eyes. Dogs with distemper often have very low energy and won't want to eat. Usually, these symptoms are followed by effects on a dog's gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract or nervous system, which can include:Long-haired dalmation sitting inside drooling

  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures and/or muscle tremors
  • Circling and/or head tilts
  • Drooling
  • Loss of coordination
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Blindness from inflammation inside the eye and optic nerve
  • Coughing due to pneumonia
  • Hardened skin on the paw pads and nose
  • Loss of enamel on teeth (seen in dogs who've recovered from distemper)

Distemper weakens a dog's immune system, making them more susceptible to secondary bacterial infections. More than half of the dogs who contract distemper will not recover, according to "Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline," with many of them passing away two to four weeks after contracting the virus, usually due to neurological problems.

Dogs who do recover from distemper are not considered to be carriers of the disease. In rare cases, dogs who recover from distemper can have a relapse of central nervous system symptoms two to three months after their initial infection, which may be fatal.

Diagnosing Distemper in Dogs

To diagnose distemper in dogs, your veterinarian will consider your pup's health history, vaccination history, as well as any physical exam findings. Because distemper is incredibly common and contagious, any young pup who show symptoms and hasn't been vaccinated will be considered potentially infected. In these scenarios, precautions will need to be taken to isolate your pup.

The signs of distemper in dogs can mimic those of several other infectious diseases, including parvovirus, kennel cough and meningitis. If you suspect that your dog may be infected, you'll want to take them to the vet right away. To confirm a diagnosis, your vet will likely recommend a series of lab tests, including blood chemistry, complete blood count, fecal exams for parasites and parvovirus testing. They may also recommend additional distemper-specific blood tests. If they suspect pneumonia, your vet may recommend chest radiographs for your pup, too.

Poodle mix lying on tile floor smiling.

Treatment for Distemper

Your dog should be admitted to a veterinary hospital for isolation and treatment if they've been diagnosed with distemper or if you suspect they may have it. To prevent the spread of the disease in the hospital, it's important that dogs with distemper are isolated from others and only handled by people wearing personal protective equipment. But what is distemper treatment for pups, usually?

Currently, there is no anti-viral drug available for CDV. Since dogs with distemper typically don't want to eat and drink, become dehydrated from diarrhea and are susceptible to secondary bacterial infections, treatment is focused on supportive care. This may include fluid therapy, antibiotics and cleaning away nasal and eye discharge. Once their fever subsides and any secondary infections are controlled, dogs usually regain their appetite.

Recovery from distemper depends on a myriad of factors, including your pup's overall health and the severity of their nervous system symptoms. Severe symptoms like seizures are usually associated with a lower chance of recovery. Dogs who recover don't carry the distemper virus and aren't considered infectious.

Preventing Distemper

Fortunately, a highly effective modified live vaccine exists to prevent distemper in dogs, which is considered a core vaccine for puppies. It's recommended that all puppies 6 weeks old and older receive three to four distemper vaccine boosters every two to four weeks until they're 16 weeks old.

Most puppies are protected from distemper when they're born, thanks to the powerful antibodies they receive from their mother's milk. However, these maternal antibodies wear off as the puppy grows, leaving them vulnerable to infection. These antibodies also interfere with the vaccine, which is why a pup will need multiple boosters to appropriately develop vaccine antibodies.

Distemper is a serious disease, but it doesn't have to affect your precious pup's health. By following your veterinarian's vaccine recommendations and heeding the tell-tale signs mentioned above, you can easily protect your dog from distemper.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well-known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice.

In addition to being a speaker, author, veterinarian, and co-creator of the wildly popular card game 'Vets Against Insanity', she co-owns Elevated Eateries Restaurant group in Greeley with her husband of 21 years, and together they are raising three slightly feral mini-humans. When it's time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado, diving with sharks in the Caribbean, or training kenpo karate in her local dojo. To learn more, visit drsarahwooten.com