Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is a highly-contagious, viral disease that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous system which kills more than half of all dogs that are infected. Although vaccination programs have drastically reduced the incidence of Canine Distemper, it still occurs in domestic dogs as well as other carnivores, including raccoons, skunks and foxes. The dogs most at risk are puppies between three and six months of age as well as non-vaccinated older dogs.

Canine distemper is transmitted through bodily secretions, especially respiratory secretions. The primary way the virus travels is through the air and dogs in recovery will continue to shed the virus for several weeks after symptoms disappear. So it is very important to quarantine infected animals for the full length of time your veterinarian recommends.

Once a dog is exposed to Canine Distemper, the virus spreads rapidly through the lymph system, with lymphoid organs being infected within 2 to 5 days. By days 6 to 9, the virus has spread to the blood stream, then infects the lining of the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital and central nervous systems.

Early symptoms of Canine Distemper include a fever, loss of appetite and eye inflammation. As the disease progresses, symptoms become more and more serious. Fever (103 to 106 F) usually peaks about 3 to 6 days after infection, then subsides for a few days then will peak again. Although symptoms vary, many dogs experience:

  • Conjunctivitis (infection of the eye)
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Pneumonia (including coughing and labored breathing)
  • Runny Nose Vomiting

Dogs almost always develop encephalomyelitis, which is inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. This combined with other neurological conditions is the main cause of death in a dog with distemper. Most often it is complications related to one of the following that causes death:

  • Muscle incoordination (Ataxia)
  • Depression
  • Hypersensitivity to touch, pain, etc.
  • Paralysis
  • Deterioration of Mental and Motor Skills
  • Seizures

Diagnosis of Canine Distemper is difficult because there is no one test that can determine if a dog is infected. Also, many of the symptoms of Canine Distemper mirror that of other diseases, such as bacterial pneumonia, gastroenteritis and epilepsy. Your veterinarian will use a variety of tests to determine if your dog does have Canine Distemper. Be sure to tell your vet if your dog has been exposed to wild life or other dogs that may be infected.

It is also important to protect yourself if you suspect your dog has Canine Distemper as it is possible for humans to contract an asymptomatic infection. However, being vaccinated against measles is protection against Canine Distemper Virus as well.

There is no cure for Canine Distemper, it can only be treated on a symptomatic basis. Depending on the symptoms, your vet will control any secondary infections that may arise such as conjunctivitis and pneumonia as well as any other necessary treatments to control symptoms.

The best way to prevent your dog from contracting Canine Distemper is to vaccinate annually. Vaccinations work well and can protect your dog as soon as 4 days after vaccination. One of the most effective vaccines against Canine Distemper is NeoVac DA2 from NeoTech, LLC. It is safe for puppies as young as 4 weeks of age.

If you have a dog that has died as the result of a Canine Distemper infection, the entire premises should be decontaminated, including objects and living areas with a disinfectant, such as Trifectant to prevent any further infection. Also, if you do decide to get another pet, you should wait at least a month before introducing a new puppy to prevent any further infection.


9 thoughts on “Canine Distemper

  1. After reading this, it makes me glad none of my dogs have ever had distemper. I guess I’ll need to be more cautious about letting him chase after the wild critters.

  2. Nicky says:

    My vet said they cannot test for distemper, but thinks my 9 month old (approx.) puppy may have been exposed to it before he got adopted by me from the Humane Society almost 3 weeks ago on 1/15/09. He seems fine to me because he has no clinical symptoms of distemper. The problem he has every time upon rising (no matter what time of day or how long the nap) is that he cannot get his feet to work…He is all scrunched, hunched up and his from paws roll over his nails so he is trying to walk on the “back of his hand” so to speak. He looks drunk….After a minute or so of stumbling and sort of collapsing to the ground several times, he gets up and then is pretty well coordinated and fine………. Happens again after he lays down for more than 5-10 minutes and has to get up again…..same stumbling around. Also he is very very very low energy….He is done growing at this age and weighs 30 lbs. He is a hound mix. Please if there are any ideas whether its a neurological or spinal/muscular problem, I would appreciate your 2 cents! thanks, nicole

    • Lissa says:


      I talked to our staff veterinarian, and he says:

      There are test for distemper that can be run. Neurological signs can be one sign of distemper and knuckling is a sign of neurological dysfunction. There are many problems that cause what you are describing and if your vet is unwilling to acknowledge there is a problem and run tests than it is time to find one that will.

      Dr. Kesler

  3. Woops, sorry. There were some typos in the above post. Here it is again corrected:

    Analysis of cerebrospinal fluid to detect Distemper in the CNS, and a Brush Border smear of the bladder is pretty accurate to test for Distemper in the body as long as it’s still in the acute phase.

    If anyone is interested in treatment for their dogs there is a relatively new method developed by Alson W. Sears DVM that an increasing number of vets are using. Read my blog for info on the personal experience of my dog, Carmella who has had great success with it.

    Be sure also to look at the links in my sidebar to get the exact instructions. This is very promising!

    Nicky, that doesn’t sound good. Stumbling like that is often a sign of neurological involvement which can progress to paralysis. Please check out the links on my blog if you would like some help. I’ve got Dr. Sears’ e-mail address where you can contact him and he’s willing to consult with people’s vets on this.



  4. maike says:

    i have a dog infected with parvo and distemper as the clinic says..
    i hate it. can my dog live longer? he is about 3 months old. can he survive? he was diagnose about 2 days ago.

    During the next two weeks, the pet either develop antibodies against the disease that protect it and kills the virus or it gradually goes downhill. There is allot of variation in the duration and severity of the clinical disease between pets. That is because some of the pets are partially immune, some of them have genetic resistance and the strain of distemper they contracted could be strong or weak. Pets that go downhill develop a cough, secondary bacterial pneumonia and inflammation of the intestines. Many of these dogs have infection and damage to their brains and spinal cords that result in tremor and convulsions. Labored breathing and an un-kept appearance are common. By the third week most dogs have either died from the infection or are on the way to recovery. You can tell this by their mental attitude. If they perk up and begin wagging their tails the angels have spared them. The exceptions are the cases in which damage to the brain is delayed for up to three months. For some reason, these tend to be dogs with long noses and faces like collies and german shepherd types. These delayed cases may show no respiratory or intestinal signs before delayed nerve damage occurs. Pathologists say that in a few cases, the virus persists in the eyes, footpads and nervous system – possibly forever.

    according to

    is this true?

    In all but mild cases, treatment requires hospitalization and intensive management is essential. There is no magic drug to kill the virus and the patient requires supportive measures, which may include:

    – intravenous fluid replacement to combat dehydration and control electrolyte levels
    – medication to control vomiting and diarrhea
    – antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections
    – blood transfusions – to replace protein loss, provide antibodies, help with anemia

    If your pup survives the first 3-4 days, it will usually live. Dogs that recover are immune to the disease.

    After your dog recovers completely, it should be isolated for at least 2 weeks and some resources advise isolation for as long as 30 days. This is in order to minimize spreading the virus.

    this is according to

    tell me the truth.. please.. i need to know what to do, to expect.. i am doing, i am giving everything i can for my dog to live.. please..

    i need help..

  5. Kristina says:

    I lost a 3 month old blue healer last year to distemper. My vet and I tried to save him with supportive care, but it progressed so fast. Over the winter I got Hanna , my harrier hound. She was completely vaccinated , and healthy at one year old. This month she spiked a 106 fever and we had her tested. The results where positive for distemper. I live on a resort in Wy and my home has frequent night vistors such as fox, wolves ect. We suspect a very strong virus in this area. Since Hanna was positive we choose to treat her with amoxicillin and tamaflu. Yes Tamaflu for the swine flu. We are not seeing any progression of the distemper.

  6. Keltria says:

    I live in South Africa, and I rescue puppies. Unfortunately I brought in some puppies that had distemper. (We never knew they had it). My 4 dogs who had all been vaccinated got sick. I rushed them to the vet, and we treated them with antibiotics and they appeared to get better. I then injected them with the vaccine according to Dr Sears. We worked together with this for a while.

    Yesterday I had to put my one dog down, he just got progressively worse and started to suffer. It was a hard decision, but he was becoming paralized.

    What I want to know is… will my other dogs turn? It has been almost 3 weeks since they got really ill, and they seem to be healthy happy dogs.

    The one I put down also seemed healthy until a week ago, and that was when he turned and then yesterday I did the kind thing. I have become seriously paranoid over my remaining dogs. I have bleached everything he has been in contact with since he turned. I also kept him seperate from my other dogs, once I noticed he had turned.

    I keep checking their eyes, and gums and everything.

  7. prash says:

    i had a 2 month old golden retriever puppy wich was daignosed with k-9 distemper. i lost everything that day until now i still cant stay in my house because i keep thinking of him i miss him

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