Distemper in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Updated May 31, 2024
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What Is Distemper in Dogs?

Canine distemper is a highly contagious, often fatal viral disease that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal (GI), nervous system, and other organs of dogs.

Unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated dogs and puppies are at highest risk.

This disease primarily spreads from one dog to another through direct contact, such as coughing and sneezing

Distemper doesn’t just affect dogs. Infected ferrets and wildlife—foxes, wolves, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and other carnivores—can also become sick and transmit the virus to dogs.

Distemper in dogs can be prevented through a core vaccine given by a licensed veterinarian. All dogs should remain current on this vaccine throughout their lives.

Fortunately, due to widespread vaccination against distemper, the disease is less common than it once was.  

Distemper in dogs can become serious very quickly, which is why it’s important to bring your dog to a veterinarian promptly if you suspect this disease.

The earlier treatment is started, the better the chance for recovery.

If left untreated, distemper in dogs is often fatal, especially in puppies.  

Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs

Distemper in dogs initially causes the following symptoms:

Some dogs only appear to have a minor cold with eye and nasal discharge, while others may have no symptoms at all.

As the disease progresses, dogs can develop:

Causes of Distemper in Dogs

Distemper is transmitted mainly through respiratory secretions (coughing and sneezing) but other bodily fluids like urine, vomit, and stool can also contain the virus.

Contact with an infected animal is the most common way for distemper to spread, but shared food bowls and contaminated supplies, surfaces, and equipment can also pose a risk.

Dogs, ferrets, and wildlife can appear healthy and still be a source of the distemper virus. Recovered dogs may remain contagious for several months.

At this time, there is no evidence that humans can get canine distemper.

However, ferrets are also at risk for being infected with the canine distemper virus and should be vaccinated against it.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Distemper in Dogs

Your veterinarian will start with a thorough physical exam to check for abnormalities, such as eye or nose discharge, abnormal lung or heart sounds, and signs of dehydration.

Your vet will want to know when symptoms began, whether your dog is up to date on his distemper vaccine, and if he has been in close contact with any other animals recently.

If symptoms and history align with distemper, your veterinarian can do diagnostic testing like PCR to detect the actual virus or antibody tests to determine a dog’s exposure to the virus.

Depending on the test chosen, various samples can be used including to the blood, urine, and eye or nose discharge.

Your veterinarian will determine the appropriate samples to collect to receive an accurate diagnosis.  

Treatment of Distemper in Dogs

Treatment for distemper in dogs consists of supportive care of symptoms and can vary.

The most common treatments are:

  • Gastrointestinal support for severe diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration.

    • Many cases require intravenous (IV) fluid therapy (to treat and prevent dehydration), anti-vomiting medications, and antibiotics.

    • Canine distemper virus can weaken the immune system, causing secondary bacterial infections, septicemia, disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), and in some cases, death.

  • Respiratory support for severe pneumonia. Many dogs have trouble breathing and experience severe coughing.

    • Some of these symptoms can be life-threatening and may require oxygen therapy, antibiotics, and hospitalization.

  • Neurological support for seizures. These seizures can last several minutes, which can lead to irreversible brain damage and even death.

    • Dogs with seizures caused by distemper may require hospitalization and monitoring along with anti-seizure medications.

In severe cases, humane euthanasia may be considered if the disease has progressed and treatment is not effectively controlling symptoms.

Recovery and Management of Distemper in Dogs

Dogs can survive distemper, but they may develop lifelong, debilitating effects from the disease.

Distemper can cause chronic seizures and muscle twitches.

Neurologic symptoms may develop weeks or months after a dog has been infected with distemper virus and last for the rest of a dog’s life.

Dogs with distemper can be contagious for several months.

It’s important that a dog with distemper be isolated from other animals until he has fully recovered and is no longer deemed contagious by a veterinarian.

This is to reduce the spread of the virus to other vulnerable animals.

Thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting household items—such as bedding and dog bowls—is essential to remove the virus from home.

Dogs recovering from distemper should attend all follow-up veterinary appointments to support optimal health and well-being. Some dogs benefit from appetite stimulants, such as Entyce™, during recovery.

Prevention of Distemper in Dogs

Vaccination for distemper in dogs is crucial—it’s the best way to prevent this disease.

It's important that a veterinarian perform this vaccination 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 stimulate the immune system to provide protection against disease.

Most dogs show no side effects from vaccination, but pups can become sore at the injection site or develop a mild fever. In rare cases, allergic reactions can occur.

Speak to your veterinarian about the benefits and risks involved with vaccinations.

Tiffany Tupler, DVM, CBCC-KA


Tiffany Tupler, DVM, CBCC-KA


Dr. Tiffany Tupler is a graduate from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine with a certificate in shelter medicine and...

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