Distemper Symptoms in Dogs and How to Treat Them

Distemper Symptoms in Dogs and How to Treat Them

Medically Reviewed by Taylor Froiland, PharmD, RPh
Written by Adam McCown, PharmD

What Is Canine Distemper?

Distemper in dogs is a serious and potentially fatal virus affecting domestic dogs and other animals like ferrets, skunks, and raccoons. Caused by the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), this disease is highly contagious and, unfortunately, as of today, considered incurable. Distemper in dogs is called a multisystem disease because it affects your canine’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems.

Similar to measles in humans and the Rinderpest virus in cattle, canine distemper is classified as a Morbillivirus virus. It is found most often in puppies and elderly dogs, however the virus can infect any dog of any age if they are not vaccinated against it.

Distemper Symptoms in Dogs

Although they can vary from dog to dog, distemper symptoms usually include diarrhea, vomiting, thick yellow discharge from the eyes and nose, persistent cough, fever, and lethargy. This disease is one that gets increasingly worse as it progresses and so the distemper symptoms your dog experiences will change over time.

The above symptoms are indicative of the initial phase, but should the virus progress and invade your dog’s nervous system, your pet may start suffering seizures, fits, attacks of hysteria, and even paralysis.

If you start to notice any of these distemper symptoms in your dog, it is best to record them along with their severity in order to report them to your veterinarian as soon as possible. If you believe your dog is suffering from canine distemper, then it will benefit them if you can provide the vet with as much information about their condition as possible.

How Dogs Get Distemper

Like many viruses, dogs catch distemper from other dogs through contact with fresh urine, blood, or saliva. This means that sneezing, coughing and sharing food and water bowls with infected dogs are all possible ways for the virus to be passed on.

The good news, however, is that the distemper virus cannot survive for very long in the environment, meaning in the air or on surfaces. On the other hand, however, dogs infected with distemper are able to pass on the virus for several months after catching it, making themselves a danger to other dogs around them that they come into contact with.

Because other wild animals can also become infected with the virus, it is possible that your dog could catch distemper if they come into contact with other animals or occupy the same areas as they do.

Treatment of Canine Distemper

Treatment of canine distemper is, unfortunately, bleak. The disease is considered incurable, and as it’s a virus, antibiotics have no effect on the illness itself, only on secondary bacterial infections that may result as your dog’s immune system weakens. The treatment of distemper is therefore primarily aimed at mitigating the symptoms of distemper.

Canine Distemper in Puppies

Although all unvaccinated dogs are susceptible to the disease, canine distemper in puppies and adolescent dogs is most common. Puppies younger than seven weeks, born to mothers who haven’t been vaccinated against the virus, are extremely susceptible.

Once infected, puppies become severely weakened. Often the virus travels to the brain, causing seizures, shaking and trembling. As with all diseases that affect the immune system, once your puppy is infected with distemper, it can cause them to be at increased risk for secondary infections.

How to Prevent Distemper in Dogs

Although there is no known cure for distemper in dogs, there are highly effective vaccines to protect your dog from it. Typically, these vaccines are given to puppies along with other routine vaccines at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age. After the initial puppy vaccine boosters, additional distemper vaccine boosters should be given to adult dogs. Your vet will let you know the proper frequency and number of boosters necessary to keep your dog safe from this deadly disease.

We can’t stress enough the importance of getting your puppy vaccinated for distemper. The rate of this infection in dogs has decreased greatly since the 1970s precisely because canine vaccination efforts have been so successful. Because wild animals are not vaccinated for the disease, it is essential to keep vaccinating our canine population to prevent canine distemper from returning as a major killer of dogs.

Also important for the prevention of distemper in dogs is the regular cleaning and disinfecting of your home and your dog’s kennel to kill any of the virus that may be present on surfaces. Furthermore, just as critical is restricting your unvaccinated puppy or dog from socializing with other unvaccinated animals.

Express Vet Pharmacy Is Here to Help

If your dog is diagnosed with distemper, and your vet prescribes any medications to treat the symptoms or secondary infections associated with the virus, we are here to help you fulfill all your pet medication needs at Express Vet Pharmacy.