Canine Distemper: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Canine distemper is a highly contagious, systemic, viral disease, occurring in dogs worldwide. It’s among the most serious diseases your dog can get, but, thanks to modern-day vaccinations, it’s also one of the most preventable. 

The disease is highly contagious and potentially fatal. It affects a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems, as well as the conjunctival membranes of the eye. Forming part of a group of RNA viruses known as paramyxovirus, closely related to measles in humans, canine distemper causes severe illness in dogs by attacking multiple body systems, resulting in a widespread infection that is difficult to treat.

Owed to effective vaccinations, canine distemper has become increasingly rare. But it remains a risk for dogs who are not up-to-date with their vaccinations, especially puppies. It’s essential to vaccinate your dog as soon as possible, and stick to an annual vaccination schedule thereafter. 

Symptoms and Transmission

Canine distemper usually starts with several common signs of respiratory illness, including sneezing, coughing, and thick mucus coming from the eyes and nose. Fever, sudden vomiting and diarrhea, lethargy, depression, and a loss of appetite are also secondary symptoms of the virus.

The disease spreads via direct contact with an infected dog or object, or through airborne exposure (similar to the common cold in humans). When an infected dog or wild animal coughs, sneezes, or barks, it releases aerosol droplets into the air, infecting nearby animals and surfaces, like food and water bowls.

Although the virus cannot live long in the open environment and can (thankfully) be destroyed by most disinfectants, distemper-infected dogs can host the virus for weeks or up to several months, placing other dogs around them at risk.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing your dog with canine distemper can be difficult, as it will depend on its immune system, clinical symptoms, and age. There is no fixed test for diagnosis, but certain lab tests may be helpful in confirming the viral onset. (These can be discussed in greater depth with your veterinarian.)

If your dog contracts distemper, supportive care is the only treatment available. This consists of IV fluids, anti-seizure medications, and medications to help control vomiting and diarrhea. Additionally, your vet may prescribe antibiotics in order to treat secondary bacterial infections, such as bacterial pneumonia. Dogs that have been diagnosed with and are recovering from distemper should be separated from other dogs and animals for at least two weeks after they have stopped showing clinical symptoms.

Are Your Pet’s Vaccinations Up-to-Date? 

Along with the parvovirus, canine adenovirus, and rabies, veterinarians consider the distemper vaccine to be a core vaccination, which means it is recommended for all puppies and dogs with an unknown vaccination history. These core diseases have significant morbidity and mortality rates and are more commonly recognised. 

Canine distemper is preventable with the appropriate vaccination schedule. Your puppy should be vaccinated at six to eight weeks old, and then every three to four weeks until your pet is 16 to 20 weeks old. This is then followed by a booster vaccination one year later, and then every one to three years in adult dogs or as determined by your veterinarian. Vaccinating one’s pet results in adequate protection from the disease.

Lisa Wallace

Freelance Writer & EditorI’m a Cape Town-based writer working in education technology. I love people, but undoubtedly love felines more! I literally skip with glee when TEARS rope me in with a writing assignment – it’s a great pleasure to be able to use my craft to help their marketing team, in any small way I can.