Distemper In Dogs

distemper in dogs

Welcome To Our Complete Guide To Distemper In Dogs.  Taking A Look At Exactly What Causes This Nasty Illness.  With Details Of The Symptoms To Look Out For, Whether There Are Any Treatment Options And How To Avoid Your Dog Getting Distemper.

Canine distemper is something that can drive a cold chill into the hearts of dog owners and vets alike. Although vaccinations for distemper are now commonplace, not every dog is given their routine shots. If you have missed a set and are worried that your dog might have distemper, then call your vet now. In this article we’ll take a look at what symptoms to look out for, and what might happen next.

What is distemper in dogs?

Canine distemper is caused by a virus that induces serious, aggressive illness in dogs. If left untreated distemper in dogs can lead to death. So it’s serious business. It is a global, highly contagious disease, but luckily there is a distemper vaccine dogs receive as part and parcel of their basic vaccination profile.

distemper in dogs

Because the distemper virus in dogs can be lethal it’s crucial to recognize the signs of distemper in dogs, as well as understand what causes distemper in dogs. To varying degrees, distemper symptoms will depend on the severity of the case as well as your dog’s response to the virus. But the infection is nothing to be trifled with, as even those dogs that do recover can have significant damage to their nervous systems.  So let’s find out what distemper is, and what you can do to avoid it.

Who can catch distemper?

Dogs are not the only animals that can get distemper! A whole host of other carnivorous animals, both in the wild and domesticated, can become infected. Domestic cats do get distemper too, but the viral strain is different than the strain that infects canines; thus cats and dogs cannot contaminate each other. But distemper in wildlife can be spread to domestic dogs.

When I feed the critters that visit my backyard, including a family of five inquisitive raccoons who live in a mulberry tree, I use disposable gloves when handling anything that comes into contact with the animals. This includes dishes, toys, etc., since the distemper virus can be spread through both direct and indirect contact with a contaminated animal. Needless to say, I never ever touch or play with the possum, skunk or other wildlife that amble through, (and neither should you!), but it’s hard to resist providing them with water and kibble, especially for the adorable babies!

It might also surprise you to know that the distemper virus is closely related to the measles virus that afflicts the human population.

How does a dog get distemper?

There are three basic means of transmission of canine distemper in dogs: direct contact, air exposure, and via the placenta. Distemper disease can be spread when a pup is born. This occurs when the virus is passed from the mother via the placenta to her offspring. Alternatively, the virus can be spread through the air, just as the cold virus is spread among us humans when we sneeze or cough. Among dogs, barking is another route for the virus to be released, via the saliva and aerosol mist that is expelled.

Lastly, direct contact with items that have been infected with urine, blood or saliva, such as toys, food bowls and water dishes are a means of transmission, as is direct contact with the infected animal itself.

It’s important to recognize the early symptoms as many of the milder distemper symptoms might be ignored or mistaken for other issues (some infected dogs display no signs of the illness). Unfortunately if left untreated the virus can go on to do further, serious harm, including brain damage, which is why it’s crucial to catch the disease as early as possible. So, what are the signs of distemper in dogs?

Distemper symptoms in dogs

Dogs will display two sets of symptoms in response to the virus depending on where the virus is multiplying within the body.

distemper in dogs

When a pooch is first infected, the virus begins to reproduce in the respiratory tract before going on to reproduce within the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. An unusual discharge from the eyes is usually the first sign of distemper. The infection will then go on to produce a loss of appetite, fever and discharge from the nose. In the majority of canines, fever develops within 3 to 6 days after the virus enters the body.

During the initial stage other symptoms can include weight loss, lethargy, coughing, dehydration, difficulty breathing, diarrhea and vomiting. While all of these signs and symptoms are horrid for any dog to have to endure, the infection can cause a further painful issue if left untreated. This is called, “hard pad disease,” and when it happens the sensitive paw pads expand and harden.

Stage two of the virus brings another set of troubling and grave symptoms as the virus moves into the central nervous system, causing inflammation and infection. These include twitching and seizures along with excess salivation and chewing which is also referred to as, “chewing gum fits.” In addition your dog may walk around in circles, tilt its head or exhibit repetitive eye movements. Less commonly seen symptoms include blindness and paralysis. If you see your dog exhibiting any of these signs, you need to contact your vet straight away.

Dog distemper treatment

Distemper is diagnosed through lab tests and examination. There is not yet a cure for distemper in dogs. When a dog contracts the virus your veterinarian will provide what is called supportive care. This entails treating the symptoms caused by the disease.

Depending upon your dog’s symptoms, your vet can treat your pup for vomiting, dehydration, and diarrhea. She can also prescribe anti-seizure medication as well as prescribe antibiotics to ward off potential additional infections including pneumonia.

The symptoms of distemper in dogs can resolved in few as 10 days. But some symptoms and the virus itself can remain for months. This means that your dog can continue to spread the disease even if he appears symptom-free. The course of the illness depends on the strain of the virus and the health of your dog’s immune system. It’s important to remember that even with proper treatment, your dog can succumb to the disease. In general the prognosis for distemper in dogs is poor, although dogs the world over can and do recover from this debilitating viral infection.

How long can a dog live with distemper?

All of this worrying data may lead you to wonder if a distemper in dogs cure is possible. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Though some dogs do recover. But remember, distemper is an entirely preventable disease! Let’s take a look at the shot they provide for distemper in dogs.

Distemper shot for dogs

What is the distemper vaccine for dogs? The vaccine commonly given contains a tiny amount of the live distemper virus. It works by helping your dog to build immunity to the virus. And this method has been used now by vets for more than 50 years.  However some veterinarians choose to an alternative to the live virus shot. Without getting too bogged down in medical jargon, this shot carries only a part of the distemper virus and is believed to have a lesser risk of subsequent side effects.

Your vet can explain the pros and cons of each choice in greater detail, depending upon your dog’s specific health condition, immune system strength, etc. Distemper shots can be given as early as 6 weeks of age, with booster vaccines recommended for example at 9, 12 and 16 weeks old. Your vet will work on the recommendations that fit the type of vaccine they are providing.

Can a vaccinated dog get distemper?

Most experts agree that the distemper vaccine is virtually 100% effective. There have been cases of canine distemper disease occurring in vaccinated dogs. But we have to stress this is incredibly rare. To put the phenomenon in perspective, there are instances every year of individuals getting and sometimes dying from the flu even after they have been vaccinated. It is important to note that if your dog has been exposed to the virus prior to vaccination, the vaccine will not provide protection against the disease.

Distemper vaccine side effects dogs

Are there side effects to distemper shots in dogs? Yes, there is a slight chance of side effects, as is the case with most vaccines. Side effects from the distemper inoculation include lethargy, lack of appetite, and a low-grade fever. Experts agree that the risk and severity of the distemper vaccine outweigh the risks of distemper itself.

The current data suggests that adverse reactions in response to pet inoculations is exceedingly low. In addition the study found that inoculations do not significantly contribute to a decrease in overall health in the pet population. Vaccinations are safe and have really helped to control infectious diseases. As with all important matters regarding your beloved pet, you should always discuss your thoughts and concerns with your trusted veterinarian.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson

Our complete guide to Distemper in Dogs. A dog health guide.Distemper in dogs

Distemper strikes a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. There is no medicine that treats the disease itself, but shots are the key to preventing it. Some dogs are at greater risk than others. These include puppies under the age of four months and unvaccinated dogs.

The length of infection, as well as a dog’s survival rate, vary. They are dependent on the strain of the virus and the quality of the pup’s immune system. If you think that your pooch is showing signs of distemper don’t hesitate to contact your vet for advice and direction!

Has your dog had distemper? Share your story in the comments section below.


The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website


  1. We are still unsure if our 10 month adopted street dog dog actually had distemper. He was vaccinated and if so was v mild; slight cough and only a bit of eye gunk. However, he now has horrid pulsing in his head and jaw movement that is constant whwn he is at rest or sleeping. No other symtoms. Horrid for us but doesnt seem to affect him. Our 2 other vaccinated dogs are fine. It is about a month now…just hoping it will at least lessen with time?! Anyone else had a similar experience?! Vet says likely he will have this for life?!

  2. Our puppy was purchased by Craiglist at8 weeks old . 3 days later she became very ill . Was taken to our Vet diagnosed with parvo and distemper. Was in the hospital for 3 weeks . She has been home for 2 weeks now recovering from pneumonia. We’re taking one day at a time . With good doctors at VCA hospital in South Pasadena and lots of prayers.

    • How is your pup doing? My pup just got diagnosed with distemper. She’s doing well, but I’m concerned about the long term affects. Would love an update on your dog!