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Distemper in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Prevention

Distemper in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

As soon as you bring a new pup into your life they become a top priority, and it’s up to you to learn about the canine diseases that can compromise their health and wellness. It’s especially critical to learn about highly contractible and often fatal illnesses like distemper.  

What is distemper in dogs?

Distemper is a severe and often deadly viral infection that affects dogs as well as  ferrets and wild animals like foxes, skunks and raccoons. Along with parvovirus, it’s one of the most serious diseases your dog can contract. Canines of any age can get it, but puppies are particularly susceptible. The signs of distemper in older dogs are the same as in young dogs. 

What causes distemper in dogs?

The cause of distemper in dogs is the paramyxovirus. This type of virus is also responsible for several other deadly animal diseases, including virulent Newcastle disease in birds and rinderpest in cattle. It typically attacks the respiratory system, but some paramyxoviruses attack the nervous system and even the reproductive system. Distemper is one of the few paramyxoviruses for which there is a vaccine. 

Is distemper in dogs contagious?

Yes, it is highly contagious. Transmission of distemper in dogs can happen through direct contact with an infected animal, including from mothers to unborn puppies through the placenta. Distemper is also airborne, so when an infected dog barks or sneezes, the disease can quickly spread onto surrounding surfaces where it can be picked up—or it can be directly transmitted through the air. Wildlife can also transmit distemper to dogs. 

When a dog has distemper, they can shed the virus and be contagious for months, even if they aren’t showing symptoms. Fortunately, the virus that causes distemper in dogs doesn’t last long once it’s in the environment and is easy to kill using regular disinfectants.  

What are the early distemper symptoms in dogs?

Many people think of neurological distemper in dogs when they think of this illness. The initial symptoms, however, are usually more like allergies—watery or pus-filled eyes and nasal discharge. Dogs often lose their appetite, become lethargic and start running a fever. Your dog may cough, experience diarrhea or vomit. Most of these symptoms appear three to six days after infection. Getting treatment for distemper in dogs as early as possible is vital. Seek veterinary services as soon as you notice symptoms. 

What other diseases look like distemper in dogs?

The symptoms of neurological distemper in dogs can be frightening and may seem specific to this disease. However, there are a few other illnesses that have similar symptoms to distemper in dogs.  

Canine hepatitis, similarly to distemper, causes discharge from the eyes and nose. Leptospirosis can cause shivering and muscle tenderness, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever causes muscle pain and swelling, which can be mistaken for distemper symptoms in dogs. Lead poisoning has perhaps the most similar symptoms to distemper, and includes uncoordinated walking, tremors and seizures. Your vet will be able to tell you more about what symptoms like these can mean for your pup.  

How is distemper diagnosed?

When you take your dog to the vet for any of the above symptoms, you’ll be asked questions about their medical history, vaccination history and any other clinical signs. If the disease has progressed and your dog is displaying severe distemper symptoms, your veterinarian will likely suspect it immediately.  

The next step is usually a diagnostic test using a swab from the eye or nose. Blood tests are also utilized in certain cases.

How does distemper progress?  

Distemper eventually causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. This causes the particularly worrying symptoms of neurological distemper in dogs, which includes circling, head tilts, paralysis, twitching and seizures.  

As distemper in dogs progresses, it can cause hyperkeratosis, or “hard pad” symptoms in the nose and paw pads. Essentially, the skin thickens and hardens and can cause discomfort. Secondary infections of the lungs and gastrointestinal tract are also common because distemper compromises the immune system.  

What is the prognosis for distemper in dogs?

Distemper in dogs is often fatal. Some estimates project that it is fatal for 50% of adult dogs and 80% of puppies. The survival rate, however, often depends on the particular virus strain, the care your dog receives and the strength of their immune system. This is another reason distemper is so deadly to puppies—their immune systems aren’t as developed as those of adult dogs.  

Some dogs won’t ever progress to the neurological stage, and their symptoms may resolve in as little as a week. Other dogs may show signs for weeks or months.  

Are there long-term effects of distemper in dogs?

If the distemper progresses to the neurological stage, there can be long-term effects. Your dog may develop permanent twitches or tremors, have recurring seizures or even lose their eyesight. Sometimes these effects don’t appear until the dog is middle-aged or older. 

How do you treat distemper in dogs?

There is currently no cure for distemper. Treatment for distemper in dogs involves managing symptoms to help prevent a fatality. Your dog will need to be separated from other dogs to prevent transmission and will likely need to be hospitalized  to receive proper care. 

Your vet may recommend medications to help control vomiting and diarrhea, minimize neurologic symptoms and keep your pet hydrated. There are no antibiotics for distemper in dogs, although they may be used to treat secondary infections, an often essential part of treatment. 

Pet prescriptions available to order at Petco

Can you prevent distemper?

Preventing canine distemper is relatively straightforward. Get your pup vaccinated. Because the prognosis for distemper in dogs is so poor, vaccination is one of the best preventive measures you can take for them. The distemper vaccine is part of the DHPP shot, which stands for distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza and parvovirus. It’s given in three rounds, and puppies can receive their first round as young as 6 to 8 weeks and be fully vaccinated by 16 to 18 weeks.  

Until they are fully vaccinated, keep your puppy away from unknown dogs and wildlife as well as day cares, dog parks, kennels and other places where dogs gather. Read our guide, What Vaccines Do Dogs and Cats Really Need? for more information on vaccinations and preventing canine distemper. 

How long is the distemper vaccine good for in dogs?

After the first round of three shots, puppies will typically need a booster shot after a year. Adult dogs should receive a DHPP booster every three years. The vaccine is very effective in preventing distemper, but you should not take your puppy out and about until they are fully vaccinated. Also keep in mind that the DHPP vaccine covers multiple diseases, so even if your pup has had distemper, they should still get the booster every three years. 

Are there side effects of the distemper vaccine?

Like any vaccine, the vaccine for distemper in dogs may have side effects, including lethargy, loss of appetite, fever and swelling around the injection site. Some puppies may have an allergic reaction that can take up to 24 hours to show signs, so continuously monitor your dog after they receive a vaccination. Side effects are rare, and because distemper in dogs causes such severe health problems, the vaccine is recommended in most cases.  

The bottom line is that transmission of distemper in dogs can occur easily, and this disease is often deadly with acute symptoms. On the other hand, preventing canine distemper is relatively easy and will typically cost far less than treating the disease.