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Distemper in Dogs: A Comprehensive Guide for Pet Owners

As a devoted pet owner, there’s nothing more heart-wrenching than watching our furry companions suffer from illness. One of the most dreaded and potentially fatal diseases that can affect our beloved canines is “Distemper in Dogs.” This highly contagious viral infection poses a significant threat to dogs worldwide and has been responsible for countless tragedies.

In this comprehensive blog article, we will delve into the world of canine distemper, shedding light on its causes, symptoms, and prevention measures. By the end, you’ll be armed with valuable knowledge to protect your four-legged friend from this insidious disease and provide them with the best possible care.

So, let’s embark on this educational journey, empowering ourselves to recognize and understand the complexities of distemper in dogs, while learning how we can shield our furry family members from its devastating effects.

What is Distemper and How Does It Spread?

According to College of Veterinary Medicine, “Dogs are most commonly infected by CDV when exposed to air containing droplets of the virus.”

Distemper is a highly contagious viral disease that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal, nervous, and other body systems of dogs. It is caused by a paramyxovirus[1], which is closely related to the viruses that cause measles in humans and rinderpest in cattle.

Distemper can infect dogs of any age, breed, or health status, but it is especially dangerous for puppies and unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated dogs.

Distemper can spread in three ways:

  • Through direct contact with an infected animal or object. This includes touching, licking, biting, or sharing food and water bowls with a sick dog or a wild animal that carries the virus. Distemper can also be transmitted through the placenta from an infected mother to her unborn puppies.
  • Through airborne exposure. This means that when an infected dog or a wild animal coughs, sneezes, or barks, they release tiny droplets of virus into the air, which can be inhaled by nearby animals or land on surfaces that can be touched by them.
  • Through contact with contaminated bodily fluids. This includes urine, feces, blood, saliva, mucus, and eye discharge from an infected animal. These fluids can contain the virus for up to several months after the animal recovers from the disease.

Distemper does not only affect dogs. It can also infect other animals such as ferrets, raccoons, foxes, wolves, coyotes, skunks, mink, and other carnivores. This means that an outbreak of distemper in the local wildlife population can pose a risk for dogs even if they do not come into contact with other dogs.

Causes of Distemper in Dogs

Distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus, which is closely related to the measles and rinderpest viruses. The virus attacks the cells of the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, urogenital tract, central nervous system, and optic nerves, resulting in widespread infection and inflammation. The virus can also suppress the immune system, making your dog more vulnerable to secondary infections.

Distemper is spread mainly through respiratory secretions, such as coughing, sneezing, or barking. When an infected dog or wild animal releases aerosol droplets into the environment, they can infect nearby animals and surfaces, such as food and water bowls. The virus does not last long in the environment and can be destroyed by most disinfectants, but infected dogs can shed the virus for up to several months, putting other dogs at risk.

“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”, states  Tiffany Tupler, DVM, at PetMD.

Distemper can also be transmitted through other bodily fluids, such as urine, vomit, blood, saliva, mucus, and eye discharge. Contact with an infected animal or object is the most common way for distemper to spread, but shared food bowls and contaminated supplies, surfaces, and equipment can also pose a risk.

Another way distemper can be transmitted is through the placenta. Pregnant dogs can pass the virus to their unborn puppies, which can cause serious birth defects or death. This is one of the reasons why it is important to fully vaccinate any dog you plan to breed.

Puppies are more susceptible to distemper because their immune system is not fully developed and they may not have enough maternal antibodies to protect them. Other factors that can increase the risk of distemper include stress, poor nutrition, overcrowding, and exposure to other diseases.

Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs

Distemper in dogs can cause a wide range of symptoms depending on how advanced the disease is in their bodies. Once a dog becomes infected, the virus initially replicates in the lymphatic tissue of the respiratory tract before moving on to infect other tissues and organs. This results in two stages of symptoms:

Stage One: The first symptom of distemper in dogs is usually watery to pus-like discharge from his eyes, followed by fever, loss of appetite, and clear nasal discharge. Most dogs develop a fever approximately 3-to-6 days after being infected, but the initial symptoms depend on the severity of the case and how the patient reacts to it.

Some dogs may only appear to have a minor cold with eye and nasal discharge, while others may have no symptoms at all. However, this does not mean that they are not infected or contagious.

As the disease progresses, dogs may also develop coughing, sneezing, depression, vomiting, eating less than usual, and diarrhea. These symptoms are caused by the infection of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.

Stage Two: The second stage of symptoms usually occurs 2-to-3 weeks after infection, but it may be delayed or absent in some cases. This stage involves the infection of the central nervous system and optic nerves, which can cause neurological and ocular problems. Some of the signs of this stage include:

  • Tremors
  • Chewing motions of the jaw
  • Seizures
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Pneumonia
  • Crusting of the nose and foot pads
  • Severe vomiting and diarrhea

These symptoms are often fatal and indicate a poor prognosis for recovery. Some dogs may also develop hardening or thickening of the skin, especially on the nose and foot pads, which is why distemper is sometimes called “hard pad disease”.

“Distemper is often fatal, and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage”, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Treatment of Distemper in Dogs

Unfortunately, there is no cure for distemper in dogs. Treatment is supportive and symptomatic, meaning that it aims to relieve the symptoms and prevent secondary infections and complications. The treatment plan for each dog will vary depending on the severity and stage of the disease, but some of the common treatments include:

  • Fluid therapy: This is used to treat and prevent dehydration, which can result from vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and loss of appetite. Fluids are usually given intravenously (through a vein) or subcutaneously (under the skin) to replenish the electrolytes and fluids that are lost due to the infection.
  • Anti-vomiting medications: These are used to control nausea and vomiting, which can cause dehydration, malnutrition, and aspiration pneumonia. Anti-vomiting medications can also help your dog feel more comfortable and willing to eat.
  • Antibiotics: These are used to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections, which can occur due to the suppression of the immune system by the virus. Antibiotics can help prevent pneumonia, skin infections, urinary tract infections, and other complications that can worsen your dog’s condition.
  • Anticonvulsants: These are used to control seizures, which can occur due to the infection of the brain and nerves by the virus. Seizures can cause brain damage, muscle damage, and death if not treated promptly. Anticonvulsants can help reduce the frequency and severity of seizures and protect your dog’s brain function.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs: These are used to reduce inflammation and pain, which can occur due to the infection of various tissues and organs by the virus. Anti-inflammatory drugs can help your dog feel more comfortable and reduce the risk of organ damage.
  • Nutritional support: This is used to provide adequate calories and nutrients to your dog, who may have difficulty eating due to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or depression. Nutritional support can be given orally (by mouth), through a feeding tube, or intravenously (through a vein). Nutritional support can help your dog maintain his weight, strength, and immune system.

The treatment of distemper in dogs can be costly and intensive, requiring frequent visits to the vet and hospitalization in some cases. The prognosis for recovery depends on several factors, such as the age, immune status, strain of the virus, stage of the disease, and response to treatment.

Some dogs may recover completely from distemper with no lasting effects, while others may die or develop chronic complications. The mortality rate for distemper in dogs is estimated to be between 50% to 80%.

Prevention of Distemper in Dogs

Distemper is one of the most preventable diseases in dogs with proper vaccination. Vaccination is the best way to protect your dog from distemper and its complications. Vaccination involves giving your dog a series of injections that contain a weakened or killed form of the virus that stimulates their immune system to produce antibodies against it.

Dogs should receive a core vaccination series against distemper as puppies and regular boosters as adults. The vaccination schedule may vary depending on your veterinarian’s recommendations, but a typical schedule is:

  • Puppies: The first vaccination should be given at 6 to 8 weeks of age, followed by two or three more vaccinations every 3 to 4 weeks until 16 weeks of age.
  • Adults: The first booster should be given one year after the last puppy vaccination, followed by boosters every 1 to 3 years depending on the type of vaccine used.

Vaccination is safe and effective for most dogs, but it may not be suitable for some dogs with certain health conditions or allergies. Consult your veterinarian before vaccinating your dog to make sure they are healthy enough to receive it.

In addition to vaccination, you can prevent distemper by:

  • Avoiding contact with sick or unvaccinated animals, especially wildlife. Keep your dog away from areas where wild animals may roam or leave their droppings. Do not feed or touch wild animals or their carcasses.
  • Keeping your dog’s environment clean and disinfected. Wash your dog’s food and water bowls regularly with hot water and soap. Disinfect any surfaces or objects that may have been contaminated by an infected animal with a bleach solution or a commercial disinfectant. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any animal or their waste.
  • Isolating any sick or suspected dogs from other animals until they are diagnosed and treated. If your dog shows any signs of distemper, take them to the veterinarian as soon as possible and keep them away from other dogs until they are cleared of the disease.


Can dogs of any age or breed get distemper?

Yes, distemper can affect dogs of all ages and breeds. However, puppies and unvaccinated dogs are particularly vulnerable to the virus due to their weaker immune systems. Older dogs can also be at risk, especially if they have not been adequately vaccinated or have underlying health conditions.

Is there a cure for distemper in dogs?

Currently, there is no specific cure for distemper in dogs. Treatment mainly focuses on managing the symptoms and providing supportive care. The prognosis depends on the severity of the infection and the dog’s immune response. In severe cases, the disease can be fatal, despite intensive care.

Can distemper in dogs be transmitted to other animals or humans?

Distemper is a disease that primarily affects canines and is not known to be naturally transmitted to humans. However, other animals, such as ferrets, raccoons, and certain wildlife species, can be susceptible to the canine distemper virus.

Are there any long-term effects of distemper in dogs that survive the infection?

Dogs that survive distemper may experience long-term effects, especially if the virus affected their nervous system. These effects can include neurological disorders, seizures, changes in behavior, and issues with motor skills. Regular veterinary check-ups and proper care are essential for monitoring and managing these potential long-term consequences.

Well, That’s a Wrap

Distemper is a serious and potentially fatal disease that can affect dogs of any age, breed, or health status. It is caused by a virus that can infect multiple organs and systems in your dog’s body, causing a variety of symptoms and complications.

Distemper can be prevented by vaccinating your dog regularly and avoiding contact with infected animals and objects. If you suspect that your dog has distemper, seek veterinary attention as soon as possible and follow the treatment plan prescribed by your vet.

By doing so, you can improve your dog’s chances of survival and recovery and protect other dogs and wildlife from this deadly disease.


  1. Samal, S. (2008b, January 1). Paramyxoviruses of Animals. Elsevier eBooks. Retrieved August 3, 2023. Science Direct