Distemper in Dogs


What is distemper and how is it spread?

Distemper is a highly contagious disease caused by the canine distemper virus. While distemper generally affects domestic dogs, it can also be found in wildlife such as foxes, wolves, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, mink and ferrets (with s small number of cases being reported in big cats and seals).

Spread of distemper is generally through airborne droplets. The virus can also be transmitted by shared food and water bowls. Infected dogs can shed the virus for months and it can be passed from pregnant dogs to puppies through the placenta. Contact between wild animals and domestic dogs can also encourage spread of the disease in some areas.


Which dogs are susceptible to distemper?

Any dog with insufficient immunity can contract distemper but it is most commonly seen in puppies under four months of age and dogs that have not been fully vaccinated.

Clinical signs begin as discharge from the eyes, followed by fever, nasal discharge, coughing, lethargy, reduced appetite and vomiting. As the disease progresses the virus begins to attack the central nervous system, resulting in circling, behavioural changes, a head tilt, muscle twitches, seizures and paralysis. Foot pad thickening will also develop (explaining the nickname of hard pad disease). In wildlife, the clinical signs of distemper can closely resemble rabies.


How is distemper diagnosed?

Your Vet will suspect distemper in patients with a high fever and clinical signs affecting multiple body systems. Diagnostic tests can be performed on swabs for the mucus membranes, blood testing, urine sediment or bone marrow aspirates.

How is distemper treated?

Treatment is supportive and aimed at limiting secondary bacterial infection, reversing dehydration and controlling neurological problems. Treatment will generally include broad spectrum antibiotics, correcting electrolyte disturbances, assisted feeding, medication to reduce fever and control pain, anti-convulsant and nursing care.

Unfortunately, treatment of cases with neurological involvement can be unsuccessful however, with prompt and aggressive care, some dogs with signs affecting multiple organ systems can recover.


How can distemper be prevented?

Effective vaccination against canine distemper is widely available and should be given to all dogs as early as possible. Avoid allowing vaccinations to lapse and avoid contact with infected animals and wildlife. Caution should be exercised with unvaccinated puppies and they should only be allowed to attend parks/training/day care when their vaccination course is complete.

Are there any lasting health concerns?

Dogs who survive distemper can, sadly be left with lasting health problems, including seizures and other central nervous system disorders, brain and nerve damage, enamel hypoplasia (lack of tooth enamel) and hyperkeratosis (hardening of the nose and foot pads).

Dog Health Information

Find out more

To assist owners in understanding more about a health conditions that are specific to dogs we have put together a range of information sheets to talk you through some of the more common health concerns seen and treated by our General Practice Vets.