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Distemper in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

Distemper in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment | BetterVet

Distemper is a viral disease affecting the whole body that used to cause significant mortality in canine populations. Thanks to widespread vaccination programs, infection is uncommon but can still present a risk in dogs with incomplete vaccinations, such as rescue situations, puppy farms, and illegal imports. Distemper is also present in wildlife populations.

What is Distemper in Dogs?

Distemper is caused by a highly contagious virus known as the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV). CDV can infect many different species of animals, not just dogs, including coyotes, foxes, wolves, ferrets, skunks, raccoons, and seals, to name a few.

While some primate species can be infected, there are no reported cases of CDV infecting people. The virus that causes CDV is in the same family as measles and mumps. The disease has a very high death rate in unvaccinated pet populations and wildlife.

How Does a Dog Get Distemper?

CDV is mainly transmitted via the aerosol spread of droplets from other infected animals. Infected saliva, urine, feces, or respiratory secretions can spread the virus. It can also be spread across the placenta to unborn puppies. Infection can happen all year round.

Infected animals can shed the virus for several months after infection, even when they do not show any clinical signs. The virus is unstable outside the body and does not survive in the environment for very long. Infection requires close contact with another infected animal or infected material.

Signs of Distemper in Dogs

After infection, the virus attacks multiple body systems, leading to varied clinical signs. The typical disease course of canine distemper starts with a fever lasting around 3-6 days. Your dog may lose its appetite and have low energy. This fever then subsides after several days before a second fever develops.

Many potential signs may accompany this second fever in this acute phase of the disease. These symptoms of canine distemper include:

  • Watery nasal discharge
  • Eye discharge (this may be thick or pus-like)
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • GI upset
  • Breathing issues
  • Coughing
  • Pneumonia
  • Skin pustules (rare)
  • Neurological signs in later acute stages (can be the only sign)

A “chewing gum fit” is considered a classic distemper sign. This begins with snapping and jaw spasms that progress into seizures.

Dogs that survive the acute phase may develop thickening of the footpads or the nose. This is why the condition is sometimes called “hard pad disease.”

How is Canine Distemper Diagnosed in Dogs?

While a preliminary diagnosis of CDV can be made based on clinical signs and blood examination under a microscope, laboratory testing is needed to confirm the diagnosis. CDV can have a very similar appearance to rabies, and your vet needs to confirm the diagnosis to ensure that a rabies infection is not present.

Can a Vaccinated Dog Get Distemper?

While no vaccination is 100% effective at preventing disease, the CDV vaccine is highly effective, and its success is evident in disease reduction in regions where vaccine uptake is high.

Canine distemper virus is included in the routine vaccination schedule offered by your veterinarian. Vaccination will significantly reduce the risk of your dog getting sick from the distemper virus and is considered the only effective way to protect your dog from CDV.

Vaccines take time to become effective, and immunity can wane, making young puppies or dogs whose vaccine schedule has lapsed more vulnerable. Areas of particular risk are those with high numbers of unvaccinated dogs or where there may be exposure to wildlife.

Always be careful when socializing your new puppy; discuss safe ways to do this with your veterinarian.

Treating Canine Distemper Virus

There is no specific treatment or cure for distemper. Treatment is focused on supportive care to manage gastrointestinal and neurological signs and fluids to manage dehydration.

Antibiotics are sometimes needed to help with any secondary bacterial infections that develop, but they will not treat the distemper virus.

Infected dogs should be isolated from other dogs and wildlife to minimize the spread of disease.

Can a Dog Recover From Distemper?

According to Cornell Wildlife Health Lab, canine distemper has a high fatality rate in unvaccinated animals, reported at around 50% in adult dogs and 80% in puppies.

If you keep ferrets or skunks, the virus is nearly 100% fatal for them. There is also a high mortality rate in large exotic cat species. A full recovery can be made if an otherwise healthy dog receives supportive care early in the disease course.

After the disease begins to cause neurological signs, ongoing health problems or death are more likely, although some dogs still fully recover.

Final Thoughts

CDV is a very unpleasant disease that can cause lifelong medical issues or even death for your dog if they are not vaccinated. Thankfully, vaccination is highly effective, and in populations with a high vaccine rate, the disease prevalence is very low.

If you are uncertain if your dog has been vaccinated for CDV or are worried about the potential risk to your new puppy, then speak to your veterinarian for advice.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is distemper in dogs?

Canine distemper is a viral disease that can cause a high death rate in unvaccinated dogs.

How does a dog get distemper?

Canine distemper is a virus contracted by exposure to an infected animal or animal waste such as urine or feces. The virus is carried by many different species, not just dogs.

Can distemper affect people?

No, there are no reports of the Canine Distemper Virus infecting people at this time.

Is canine distemper in dogs preventable?

Canine distemper is a highly infectious viral disease with a high mortality rate in dogs. Thankfully there is a highly effective vaccination available that is considered the only effective way to protect your dog. 

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