Distemper in Dogs

Tiffany Tupler, DVM
Written by:
Published: October 29, 2020
Distemper in Dogs

You may have seen “DHPP” or “DAPP” on your paperwork from your pet’s routine vet visit and wondered what it is. The “D” in this vaccine stands for distemper, a disease that spreads from one dog to another through coughing and sneezing. 

DHPP is one of the core vaccines for dogs that includes protection from the canine distemper virus.

Distemper in dogs can turn fatal very quickly, which is why you never want your dog to have to face it. Here’s why protection from canine distemper virus is so important.

What Is Distemper in Dogs and Puppies?

Canine distemper virus is a highly contagious, often fatal viral disease that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal (GI), and nervous system of dogs in all life stages.

It’s commonly spread between dogs, ferrets, and infected wildlife—foxes, wolves, raccoons, skunks, and coyotes.

Distemper in dogs can be prevented through a core vaccination series that is performed by a licensed veterinarian.

How Do Dogs Get Distemper?

Distemper is transmitted mainly by respiratory secretions (coughing and sneezing). A dog’s sneeze can spread respiratory particulates up to 25 feet, making the risk of exposure high.

Distemper can also spread through food bowls and contaminated supplies and equipment.

Are Puppies More Prone to Canine Distemper?

No, age does not increase or decrease the risk of contracting distemper in dogs.

Any dog that has not completed a core series of the DHPP vaccine (distemper, adenovirus-2, parainfluenza, and parvovirus vaccine) administered by a veterinarian is at risk.

Can Humans Get Distemper?

At this time, there is no evidence that humans can get canine distemper. However, distemper can be spread through contact with some wildlife. Ferrets are also at risk for contracting the distemper virus and should be vaccinated if housed with or near dogs.

What Are the Signs of Distemper in Dogs and Puppies?

Distemper in dogs usually presents as yellow- to green-colored eye discharge, followed by:

  • Nasal discharge

  • Coughing

  • Depression

  • Vomiting

  • Eating less than usual

Some dogs only appear to have a minor cold with eye and nasal discharge, while others begin to have tremors, difficulty swallowing, or partial seizures.

As the disease progresses, dogs can develop:

  • Chronic generalized tremors

  • Seizures

  • Pneumonia

  • Crusting of the nose and foot pads

  • Severe vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Death, in many cases

Can a Dog Recover From Distemper?

Dogs can live once infected with distemper, but they will usually develop lifelong debilitating nervous system issues. Adult dogs are more likely to survive infection than puppies. The disease tends to be fatal in puppies, as they are more susceptible to viral diseases.

Distemper can cause long-lasting seizures and chronic severe pneumonia that is very painful and difficult to manage, even with medical supportive care.

The disease can shed in dogs for up to six months, which makes isolation difficult and increases the likelihood for infectious spread. Many dogs that actively shed the virus show clinical signs of neurologic, respiratory, and GI disease.

A few dogs may not show any clinical signs, but they can still continue to shed the virus for up to six months.

Distemper Treatment for Dogs and Puppies

Positive cases of canine distemper virus require isolation from all other animals during the viral shedding period, along with hospitalization.

Distemper treatment for dogs consists of supportive care of clinical signs and can vary depending on a dog’s symptoms. The most common treatments are:

  • Respiratory support for severe pneumonia. Many dogs have trouble breathing, pain during expiration and inhaling, and chronic coughing. Some of these symptoms can be life-threatening and may require oxygen therapy, anti-viral medications, antibiotics, and hospitalization.

  • Gastrointestinal support for severe diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration. Canine distemper virus can weaken the immune system, causing secondary bacterial infections, septicemia, disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), and in some cases, death. Many cases require intravenous fluid therapy (to prevent dehydration), anti-vomiting medications, antibiotics, probiotics, intravenous nutritional support, and gastrointestinal protectants.

  • Neurological support for chronic seizures. These seizures can last several minutes, which can lead to irreversible brain damage and even death. These cases require hospitalization and monitoring along with anti-seizure medications.

How Do You Prevent Distemper in Dogs?

Proper vaccination for distemper is crucial because it’s the only way to prevent this serious disease.

Due to the fragile nature of the vaccine, it's important that a veterinarian perform these vaccinations to ensure quality control, safe handling (accounting for temperature-controlled shipping and storage), and proper administration.

What Are the Side Effects of the Distemper Vaccine in Dogs?

Vaccines mildly stimulate the immune system in order to work. The majority of dogs show no side effects from vaccination, but possible side effects of the distemper shot in dogs could range from soreness to mild fever. In some cases, allergic reactions (facial swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and fever) can occur.

Speak to your veterinarian about the risks involved with vaccinations.

Featured Image: iStock.com/fotografixx

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