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What is Distemper in Dogs?

4 min read

Updated - Aug 4th, 2022

Distemper is a serious disease that can cause quite a bit of stress for pet owners. However, the more you know, the better prepared you will be to handle its challenges. That’s why we’ve created a rundown of the disease. Here’s how to recognize, treat, and prevent distemper.

What is dog distemper?

Distemper, or canine distemper virus (CDV), is a contagious viral disease that affects dogs and several species of wild animals. Although there is no cure for distemper, some symptoms are treatable. Distemper is also highly preventable through vaccination.

What causes distemper in dogs?

Distemper is an airborne virus most often spread when an infected animal coughs or sneezes. Healthy dogs become infected by inhaling air droplets. Sometimes, distemper is spread through direct contact with infected blood, saliva, urine, or shared food and water bowls.

Infected dogs can be contagious for months and spread distemper to other dogs with whom they come into contact. Wild animals such as wolves, coyotes, ferrets, raccoons, or skunks can also carry distemper and infect domestic dogs.

Mothers with distemper may also pass the disease to their unborn puppies through the placenta, the organ that provides nutrients to a growing baby before birth. This is why responsible breeders keep their dogs up-to-date on distemper vaccinations and boosters. 

Distemper symptoms in dogs

Distemper in dogs is caused by a paramyxovirus that affects the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and central nervous systems. Because of its wide range of symptoms, sometimes other diseases, like rabies, can be mistaken for distemper. A vet will often diagnose distemper by testing samples of bodily fluids for viral antibodies and ruling out other possibilities.

Some symptoms of canine distemper may take up to 14 days to appear. Here are some early clinical signs of infection:

  • Watery discharge from the eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Clear nasal secretions
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Brain and/or spinal cord inflammation
  • Skin pustules
  • Pneumonia

Towards the end of this early stage, a dog’s footpads may begin to thicken, which can be uncomfortable. This is why distemper is sometimes called “hard pad disease.” If you notice any of these initial signs, you should take your dog to the vet immediately. Starting treatment early will make it most effective.

As the disease progresses, the following neurological signs may appear:

  • Recurring seizures
  • Paralysis—full or partial
  • Head tilt
  • Muscle twitching

Some of these neurological symptoms may appear months later.

How to treat distemper in dogs

While there is no cure for distemper, vets can treat individual symptoms to make your dog more comfortable. 

A vet can prescribe medications for gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea and vomiting. In some cases, seizure medicine may be prescribed. A vet can also prescribe antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections that arise as a result of distemper. Cough suppressants, electrolytes, anti-inflammatories, and steroids may be prescribed, depending on the severity of the distemper and your dog’s symptoms. 

Sometimes a vet will suggest hospitalization, so your dog can receive the supportive care they need, including IV fluids and nutrition. Hospitalization also allows your dog to isolate peacefully. It’s important to keep infected dogs away from other dogs and animals.  

Distemper is often serious and fatal. Dogs can recover, but most who do have lasting neurological issues, some of which may not emerge until well after initial recovery. Ongoing seizures, nerve damage, and brain damage are typical outcomes.

How to prevent distemper in dogs

While elements of distemper may sound frightening, it’s important to remember that the disease is extremely preventable. 

The best and easiest way to prevent infection is to make sure the distemper vaccine for dogs is received as soon as possible. Ideally, puppies should be administered a series of doses while their immune systems are still forming, so they can build immunity against distemper in the future. Adult dogs should then receive a booster every three years following the initial series. 

Here are a few further precautions you should take:

  • Be aware of outbreaks in your community.
  • Make sure your dog’s playmates are vaccinated against distemper, and that any facilities you use, such as doggy daycares or kennels, require dogs to be up-to-date on vaccinations. 
  • If you own a pet ferret, be sure to vaccinate them for distemper, as they can pass the disease on to dogs.
  • Keep your dog away from wild animals that could be infected. It’s important to stay alert, especially if you live in a wooded area.

When unexpected illnesses like distemper strike, getting your dog the care they need is a top priority. The last thing you want to worry about is a mounting pile of expensive vet bills.

Enrolling in a Pumpkin Pet Insurance plan can help alleviate this burden by paying you 90% back on covered vet bills. Don’t wait – fetch a free quote today!

Caitlin is a writer and the proud roommate of an adorable and elusive cat named Olive.

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