What is Canine Distemper? Your Guide to Symptoms and Treatment

by | Feb 2, 2024 | Dogs, Health & Wellness

Is your furry companion feeling under the weather? If you’re reading this, you’re probably worried about your dog’s health. Canine distemper is a distressing condition that can affect our loyal friends, causing discomfort and concern for their well-being. This disease poses a significant problem due to its ability to spread rapidly among unvaccinated dogs, putting canine populations at risk. The severity of canine distemper stems from its wide-ranging symptoms, including fever, nasal and ocular discharge, coughing, lethargy, and, in severe cases, neurological complications.

This comprehensive article will provide the necessary knowledge and tools to navigate distemper. You will be empowered with the expertise to recognize, address, and prevent canine distemper, ensuring the well-being of your beloved pet.

What is canine distemper?

Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) is a very contagious viral disease that affects dogs and if left untreated, can lead to severe illness. Distemper is a systemic disease that can affect various organs and systems within the dog’s body. It primarily targets the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems, leading to many symptoms.

Causes and transmission of distemper in dogs

The Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) is primarily transmitted through direct contact with an infected dog or its bodily fluids. Unvaccinated dogs, puppies, and dogs with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to contracting distemper.

Canine Distemper Virus (CDV)

The Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) is a member of the Morbillivirus family, which causes measles in humans and rinderpest in animals. CDV is highly contagious and can survive in the environment for several hours, making it a significant concern in areas with a high dog population. The virus attacks the immune system, making the dog more susceptible to secondary infections.

How is Canine Distemper Transmitted?

Unvaccinated dogs, puppies, and dogs with weakened immune systems have the greatest risk of contracting distemper.

Canine distemper is transmitted through direct contact with an infected dog or bodily fluids. When an infected dog sneezes or coughs, respiratory droplets containing the virus are released. Other dogs can inhale these droplets in close proximity, leading to infection. The virus can also be present in an infected dog’s urine, feces, or saliva, contaminating the environment and spreading the disease. Indirect transmission of CDV can also occur through contaminated food bowls, toys, or bedding.

Symptoms of canine distemper

Canine distemper can manifest in various ways depending on the stage of the disease and the affected organ systems. 

Early Indicators

In the early stages of distemper, dogs may exhibit mild symptoms such as fever, nasal discharge, coughing, and loss of appetite. These can easily be mistaken for common cold-like symptoms, which makes early detection sometimes challenging.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

As the disease progresses, dogs may experience gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. These types of symptoms can lead to dehydration and malnutrition if left untreated.

Respiratory Distress

Distemper can also cause respiratory distress, including difficulty breathing, coughing, and pneumonia. The virus attacks the respiratory system, making it vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections.

Neurological Symptoms

One of the most severe complications of distemper is its impact on the nervous system. Dogs may exhibit neurological symptoms such as seizures, muscle twitches, weakness, and paralysis. These symptoms can be irreversible and may significantly affect the dog’s quality of life.

Diagnosing distemper in dogs

Diagnosing distemper in dogs can be challenging as the symptoms often looks similar to other canine diseases. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough examination as well as additional testing for blood work, urine analysis, and imaging studies to help identify the presence of the Canine Distemper Virus.

Clinical Examination

Your vet will likely conduct a thorough examination on your dog if it is suspected they have distemper, including dog's temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate.

A thorough physical examination is crucial in assessing the overall health of a dog. This examination includes:

  • Assessment of Vital Signs: Checking the dog’s temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate.
  • Evaluation of Body Condition: Assessing the dog’s weight, muscle condition, and overall body condition score.
  • Examination of Body Systems: Assessing the eyes, ears, mouth, skin, coat, musculoskeletal system, and neurological function.
  • A comprehensive clinical examination helps detect potential health issues early, monitor chronic conditions, and establish a baseline for future reference.

Laboratory Tests

Laboratory tests are pivotal in diagnosing canine distemper, a highly contagious viral disease. Two primary types of tests used for diagnosing canine distemper are blood tests and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests.

Blood Tests for Canine Distemper

Specific blood tests used for diagnosing canine distemper include:

  • Serology: This test detects the presence of antibodies against the distemper virus in the blood.
  • Complete Blood Count (CBC) evaluates the dog’s overall health and helps to detect any abnormalities in blood cell counts, which often indicates that there is an infection.

PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) Test

The PCR test is a molecular biology technique used to detect the distemper virus’s genetic material (DNA or RNA). It plays a crucial role in confirming CDV infection by identifying the virus’s genetic material in samples such as blood, urine, or tissue. The PCR test very specific, making it a valuable tool in diagnosing canine distemper accurately.

By combining these laboratory tests with a comprehensive physical examination, veterinarians can effectively diagnose and manage canine distemper, leading to better outcomes for affected dogs.

Treatment options for canine distemper

Canine distemper is a viral disease that affects a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. Unfortunately, there is not currently a cure for canine distemper. However, supportive care and specific medications can help manage symptoms and greatly improve the dog’s chances of recovery. This may involve hospitalization, intravenous fluids, antibiotics, antiviral medications, and supportive care. The goal is to provide the dog with the best chance of recovery by addressing the specific symptoms and complications associated with distemper.

Supportive Care

Fluid Therapy

Fluid therapy is crucial in combating dehydration caused by the disease. Intravenous administration of fluids is often necessary to maintain hydration, correct electrolyte imbalances, and support organ function. This process helps the dog’s body recover from the effects of the virus.

Nutritional Support

Dogs with distemper may have reduced appetites and struggle to maintain their strength. Special dietary requirements, including easily digestible and highly nutritious food, are essential to support the dog’s immune system and overall health during recovery.


Antiviral Drugs

While there is no specific antiviral treatment for canine distemper, some antiviral medications may alleviate certain symptoms and potentially inhibit the progression of the disease. These medications are aimed at reducing the severity of the viral infection.


Antibiotics are often prescribed to manage secondary bacterial infections that can arise due to the weakened state of the dog’s immune system. They help prevent or treat additional complications, such as pneumonia, which can occur concurrently with distemper.

Isolation and Quarantine

Distemper is highly contagious so quarantining your dog is recommended.

Isolating infected dogs is crucial to prevent further transmission of the disease, as distemper is highly contagious. Quarantine measures should be implemented to limit the spread of the virus to other dogs in the vicinity. This helps protect the broader canine population from the potential devastation of a distemper outbreak.

Preventing distemper through vaccinations

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent canine distemper. Puppies are particularly vulnerable to canine distemper due to their immature immune systems. Puppies should begin to receive a series of vaccinations at around six to eight weeks, with boosters given every few weeks until they reach a certain age. Adult dogs should also receive regular vaccinations to maintain their immunity. It is highly recommended that you consult with a veterinarian to determine the overall vaccination schedule for your dog.


Puppy Vaccination Schedule

When it comes to puppies, vaccinations are crucial for protecting them against common diseases. Here’s a typical vaccination schedule for puppies:

  • 6-8 weeks: DHPP (distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, parvovirus)  Optional: Bordetella 
  • 10-12 weeks: DHPP 
  • 14-16 weeks: DHPP booster, rabies  Optional: Canine influenza, Leptospirosis, Lyme Disease)
  • 16-18 weeks: DHPP booster, rabies  Optional: Canine influenza, Leptospirosis, Lyme Disease)
  • 12-16 months: DHPP booster, rabies booster

Adult Dog Vaccination

Booster shots for adult dogs are essential to ensure their continued immunity to diseases. These booster shots are typically recommended every one to two years. 

Avoiding Exposure

To minimize contact with potentially infected animals, especially in high-risk areas, consider the following precautions:

  • Keep your dog on a leash to prevent them from approaching unknown animals.
  • Avoid heavily populated places where dogs congregate, such as dog parks, if you hear of an outbreak.
  • Consult your veterinarian for advice on specific precautions based on the prevalent risks in your area.

Risks and complications associated with distemper

Canine distemper can have severe consequences if left untreated or if the dog’s immune system is compromised. Secondary bacterial infections, pneumonia, neurological damage, and death are potential risks associated with distemper. Dogs that survive the disease may experience long-term complications such as permanent neurological deficits or weakened immune systems, so early detection is key. 

Can Pet Insurance Help You in Veterinary Care?

Treating and caring for a dog diagnosed with distemper can be financially burdensome. Pet insurance can assist in reimbursing for the costs associated with veterinary care, including diagnostic tests, medications, hospitalization, and specialized treatments. Pet insurance provides a safety net for owners, so they can focus on providing the best care for their pets rather than the financial strain.

Illness & Injury Plan

Odie Pet Insurance offers an Illness & Injury Plan, which provides comprehensive coverage for illness and injury-related medical expenses. This plan offers benefits such as coverage for hospitalization, surgery, diagnostic tests, as well as:

  • 24/7 Televet Chat
  • Emergency vet visits
  • Overnight hospital stays
  • IV Fluids & Medications
  • Medical Supplies
  • Surgeries
  • MRI/CAT Scans
  • Rehabilitative Care
  • Prescription Medications
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Laboratory Tests

Accident-Only Plan

Odie’s Accident-Only Plan is designed to cover medical expenses resulting from accidents specifically. This plan covers emergency room visits, ambulance services, and follow-up care related to accidental injuries and unexpected accidents.

Here’s an overview of the Accident-Only Plan:

  • Coverage for broken bones, sprains, eye injuries, and traumatic dental fractures.
  • Coverage for wounds, including bite wounds, lacerations, snake bites, and bee stings.
  • Veterinary treatments covered for accidental injuries include X-rays & ultrasounds, laboratory tests, emergency care, hospitalization, CT scan & MRI, and surgery.

Wellness Plan

The Wellness Plan focuses on preventive care and promoting overall well-being. This plan includes benefits such as coverage for annual check-ups, vaccinations, flea and tick medication, etc. Learn more about the Wellness Plan.

Secondary bacterial infections, pneumonia, and sometimes neurological damage can occur is distemper is left untreated.

Canine Distemper FAQ

How serious is Distemper?

The progression of canine distemper can vary. Adult dogs with distemper have a 50% survival rate and is more likely to be fatal in puppies. This is why vaccinations are so important. 

What Is the Incubation Period of Canine Distemper?

The incubation period for canine distemper is typically 3 to 6 days but can range from 1 to 6 weeks.

Can Indoor Dogs Get Infected with Canine Distemper?

Yes, indoor dogs can still get infected with canine distemper, as the virus can be transmitted through the air and by direct contact with an infected animal.

Is There a Specific Age Group More Susceptible to Canine Distemper?

Puppies and younger dogs are at risk of contracting canine distemper due to their weaker immune systems.

Can Humans Contract Canine Distemper from Infected Dogs?

No, humans cannot contract canine distemper from infected dogs. Canine distemper is a disease that exclusively affects dogs and certain wildlife species.

Are There Any Long-term Effects of Surviving Canine Distemper?

Dogs that survive canine distemper may experience long-term effects such as neurological issues, enamel hypoplasia, and an increased susceptibility to other infections.

Can Vaccinated Dogs Still Get Canine Distemper?

While vaccination greatly reduces the risk, vaccinated dogs can still contract distemper, especially if exposed to a high viral load. Regular vaccination is essential for maintaining immunity.


Canine distemper can have devastating effects on dogs. Understanding the causes, transmission, symptoms, and treatment options is essential for both veterinarians and dog owners alike. Taking appropriate precautions, such as vaccinations, can help control the spread of CDV.

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