Distemper in Dogs – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Vaccine

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Most dog parents have heard of canine distemper when they go with their newly adopted puppy to the veterinarian for vaccinations. Distemper shots are core vaccinations and protect your dog against this severe viral infection. 

In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about canine distemper. If you have heard of distemper but don’t know what it is, this article is for you! 

What is distemper in dogs?

Canine distemper is a contagious and potentially lethal viral disease caused by canine distemper virus, a relative of the virus causing measles in humans and part of the virus family Paramyxoviridae. Distemper in dogs attacks the respiratory, nervous and gastrointestinal systems. 

Canine distemper, causes, symptoms, treatment and vaccine - I Love Veterinary

What Dogs Are Most at Risk for distemper?

Puppies under four months old and dogs that have not been vaccinated are at a higher risk of contracting distemper virus. 

How is distemper spread from one pet to another?

Direct contact with secretions of infected animals and airborne exposure are the most common ways to spread distemper.  

Dogs infected with distemper shed the virus through body fluid secretions like saliva droplets and urine. When an infected dog coughs or sneezes, the virus can travel short distances and enter a susceptible animal through the nose or mouth. These droplets can also contaminate other areas such as water, food bowls, and bedding but only for a short amount of time as the virus does not survive long in an unsuitable environment. 

Dogs are not the only animals that can get this virus. Wildlife such as coyotes, raccoons, and wolves are at risk of distemper. 

Distemper symptoms - I Love Veterinary

What are the signs of distemper in dogs?

The symptoms of canine distemper vary depending on the severity and how the animal’s immune system responds to the virus. 

Most dogs start to develop signs after one to two weeks of being infected. Lethargy, fever, loss of appetite, dehydration and a watery-like discharge from the eyes are the common initial signs of distemper virus. Some dogs may recover at this stage, but others develop secondary infections and other systems in the body become affected. When the virus enters the body, it travels to the lymph nodes of the respiratory system and then travels the body through the circulatory system. 

In some cases, dogs may present the following symptoms when the virus attacks the respiratory system:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing 
  • Nasal discharge
  • Breathing difficulties

If the virus invades the gastrointestinal tract, the canine patient may have:

Distemper can also affect the canine nervous system in severe cases. The following signs may be present:

  • Head tilt
  • Seizures 
  • Incoordination
  • Change in behavior
  • Paralysis

The thickening and hardening of your dog’s footpad is also a sign of distemper.

How is canine distemper diagnosed and treated?

Physical examination and clinical and vaccination history are key when diagnosing canine distemper. Your vet may also perform blood tests to look for a reduced number of lymphocytes (white blood cells), which will help confirm a distemper case. 

There is no direct cure available for the virus. Your veterinarian will evaluate the individual situation and severity of the disease and determine a course of action to alleviate the symptoms and secondary infections. For example, fluid therapy will be necessary to compensate for the loss of fluid and dehydration when your pet is experiencing vomiting and diarrhea. Antibiotics will be prescribed to treat secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia. 

Distemper in Dogs

How can I prevent my dog from getting distemper?

The short answer: vaccinations.

When a pregnant dog gives birth, she usually passes antibodies to her puppies. They become susceptible when their maternal antibodies start to decrease in the blood. That is why it is important to begin distemper vaccinations at around six to eight weeks and continue with a course of vaccinations until they are fourteen to sixteen weeks of age. After that, additional boosters should be administered to adult dogs. 

Your veterinarian will determine the best schedule for your canine companion and it is essential that you follow their recommendations, avoiding gaps for adequate protection. 

Another important preventive measure is that puppies who have not completed the first series of vaccinations should avoid contact with wildlife and potentially infected animals. 

Can cats get distemper - I Love Veterinary

Can cats get distemper?

No, cats cannot get distemper from dogs. 

There is a disease called feline panleukopenia, which is also known as feline parvovirus or feline distemper. It should not be confused with canine distemper as they are not the same condition and are caused by different viruses. 

Questions and answers for pet owners

What is a distemper shot?

A distemper shot is just the name given to distemper vaccines. Usually, the distemper shot is a combined vaccination that protects against distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza and parvovirus (DHPP).

How long can a dog live with distemper?

The prognosis depends on the dog’s situation. How is the immune system fighting the distemper virus? Does the dog have any other medical conditions? How advance is the virus? The risk of fatality is higher when they have pneumonia and brain problems due to distemper. 

How often do dogs need distemper shots?

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, the combined vaccination should be given to pups as early as six weeks and followed by a sequence in intervals of two or four weeks until the pup is sixteen weeks of age. A booster vaccination should be administered after one year following the last dose and then every three years. 

Distemper in puppies - I Love Veterinary


If you noticed that your dog is presenting the initial symptoms we covered in this article, bring your pet to the vet immediately. Dogs with distemper should be isolated from other dogs to prevent a further spread. It is a fatal viral infection that can be preventable with up to date vaccinations. 

If you liked this article and are curious about how vaccines work, you can check out this blog post where we share everything you need to know about them, including core and non-core vaccines.

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Arais is a writer and virtual assistant for pet business owners and veterinarians. She is a graduated animal care assistant and has done work experience in veterinary clinics. She is going to start a degree in Veterinary Nursing In Ireland this year! When she is not writing, creating content or petting her three rescued cats, she's volunteering in an animal sanctuary and fostering kittens!