FYI: we may earn a commission for qualified purchases made through the links in our articles (learn more).
- Unfortunately there is no cure for distemper in dogs—only management of the symptoms like reducing diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration.
- Distemper is a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of dogs.
- Vaccination at an early age is the best way to prevent canine distemper.
If you have a furry friend, I highly urge you to know more about the distemper in dogs and the risks it poses to your pet. Distemper in dogs is a serious viral infection. It can affect dogs of all ages but is most commonly seen in puppies.
Easily transmitted between infected animals, distemper can be a frightening disease for pet parents. If you are unsure of your adopted dog’s vaccination history, then I advise you to see the vet. It’s particularly important for pet parents to stay alert when there’s word of an outbreak of this canine disease in their neighborhoods. Such outbreaks have made headlines in the media, including in The Toronto Star covering the cases in Toronto, Canada that started in May 2009 and has continued to run rampant. There are also reports from other areas that have similarly encountered the disease, including Horry County, S.C., Cumberland County, N.C., and Orange County, Fla.
Outbreaks can occur anywhere. This is why I always advise pet parents to ensure their pets’ best health. Having information at your fingertips can go a long way in preventing distemper in your pet. Read further into my guide below.
What is Distemper?
Many may not know that distemper is a close relative to the human disease called measles—both fall under the same groupd of RNA viruses called paramyxovirus. It is closely linked not only to human measles but to rinderpest in cattle as well.
Called “canine distemper,” this disease does not only affect domesticated dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) but also wild animals. Other members of the Canidae family that can contract and spread distemper include foxes, wolves, coyotes, mink, skunks, raccoons, and ferrets. Wildlife such as raccoons are more likely to spread the disease than dogs. Because they are not vaccinated like most pets are vaccinated against distemper.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), canine distemper is extremely contagious, and a serious disease. Distemper is caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems of puppies and adult dogs. It’s true that all dogs are at risk of contracting distemper. AVMA says to pay special attention to puppies under four months old and unvaccinated dogs.
How is Distemper Transmitted? What are the Symptoms of Canine Distemper?
As previously explained, distemper is highly contagious. Since the virus is contractible via all bodily secretions, merely sniffing or licking contaminated surfaces could lead to a dog catching distemper.
“Puppies and dogs usually become infected through airborne exposure to the virus contained in respiratory secretions of an infected dog or wild animal,” writes the AVMA. Experts say that coughing is one of the most common ways for a dog to get infected with the distemper virus.
“The virus enters the new host via the nose or mouth and promptly begins to replicate,” says Mar Vista Animal Medical Center. “Within 24 hours, the virus has traveled to the lymph nodes of the lung. By the sixth day, the virus has migrated to the spleen, stomach, small intestine, and liver.” This is the point at which fever develops in infected dogs. They will also eventually refuse food and water.
Symptoms of Canine Distemper:
According to the AVMA and Mar Vista, clinical signs of canine distemper include:
- Coughing (that can turn into pneumonia)
- Discharge from the eyes (which the AVMA says is the first sign of distemper)
- Nasal discharge
- Vomiting and diarrhea
In its advance stages, distemper results in more serious symptoms, as described by Mar Vista and the AVMA:
- Involuntary muscular twitching (chorea)
- Posterior paralysis
- Callusing of the nose and foot pads
- Weak limbs
Canine Distemper Virus: What Dog Owners Need to Know
It is important that you know about the canine distemper virus. Although a pet can survive distemper, it’s more often fatal. If a dog does survive, he can continue to shed the virus up to two to three months after. So it’s important to take precautions in preventing canine distemper to healthy dogs.
“Even if a dog does not die from the disease, canine distemper virus can cause irreparable damage to a dog’s nervous system,” says the AVMA. “Distemper is so serious and the signs so varied that any sick dog should be taken to a veterinarian for an examination and diagnosis.” Luckily for humans, because the virus doesn’t replicate in the human body, illnesses and symptoms won’t develop.
How is Canine Distemper Diagnosed?
Unfortunately, just as difficult as it is to pinpoint when a dog is in the clear from distemper, it is difficult to make an absolute diagnosis of distemper. Often, when veterinarians make a clinical diagnosis of a dog with distemper, they will look at the overall state of a dog’s illness and make an educated determination in conjunction with test results.
Veterinarians look at the whole picture of a dog’s condition including the symptoms, their history, and many more factors. Like other viruses, positive results will confirm infection but negative results do not completely rule it out.
Your veterinarian may do any of the following tests:
- Testing distemper inclusion bodies
- Testing distemper antibody levels
- PCR testing
- Testing cerebrospinal fluid antibody levels
According to experts, distemper inclusion bodies come in clumps of virus within infected cells are visible only under a microscrope. This particular test can give an absolute diagnoses of distemper only after the death of a dog. But unfortunately, that does not help a dog in the throes of battling the disease. When a dog is tested while alive, a veterinarian will test the blood cells or “cells of the eye’s conjunctival membranes,” or the pink part of the eye socket. Using immunohistology, a way of making inclusion bodies more visible by tagging antibodies against distemper with fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark markers, a veterinarian can make a positive diagnosis. If the inclusion bodies aren’t found, it still doesn’t mean your dog is in the clear. It only means that a positive diagnosis could not be made at the time.
For the distemper antibody levels test, Mar Vista explains that “Distemper titers (another word for ‘antibody level’) of either the ‘IgM’ type (produced in early stages of infection) and the ‘IgG’ type (produced in later phases of infection) can be checked.”
What they go on to explain is the problem with this particular test. These antibodies can appear in an animal that’s been vaccinated for distemper. Most times, in fact, dogs that test positive for possible distemper are usually animals that have recently received the vaccine. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell if it’s definitely distemper or the recent distemper vaccination causing the results. This is yet another instance where the veterinarian must look at the entire picture.
PCR Testing, or the “Reverse Transcriptase PCR” test, amplifies DNA “to allow detection of very small amounts of virus.” In this test, a vaccinated dog will also create a false positive if recently vaccinated against a distemper. So pet parents should make sure and wait at least two weeks after vaccination before doing this test.
The last test your veterinarian might do is testing your dog’s cerebrospinal fluid antibody levels. This test is done in neurological distemper cases. In this test, recent vaccination against distemper does not interfere with the results. “Distemper antibodies in cerebrospinal fluid is highly indicative of distemper infection as vaccine-induced antibodies do not cross the blood-brain barrier into the CSF fluid,” explains Mar Vista.
How to Treat Distemper in Dogs
Unfortunately, there is no cure for dog distemper or a vaccination that will destroy the virus. Treatment of the virus then consists of care workers doing their best to boost the dog or puppy’s immune system and to put out fires that reveal themselves in the form of secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. A veterinarian will do everything possible to support the animal’s health as he or she battles the virus.
“Treatment consists primarily of efforts to prevent secondary infections — control vomiting, diarrhea, or neurologic symptoms, and combat dehydration through administration of fluids,” says the AVMA. Pet parents can only wait to see how the virus will progress and whether or not their pets’ immune system will withstand the fight.
How to Prevent Distemper?
Pet parents can do to prevent distemper in their dogs is to having them vaccinated against the virus right away. Consult with your veterinarian to figure out the best vaccination program for your pet. Make sure to discuss the timetable of vaccinations. Ensure what potential side effects or risks are involved.
Side effects of distemper vaccine for dogs
Vet lists the following as some minor side effects of the distemper vaccine:
- Slight fever
- Swelling at the injection site
- Loss of appetite
Pets may sometimes suffer more adverse symptoms, though. So pet parents should stay alert and contact their veterinarians if any extreme reactions occur. Young puppies, who are more susceptible to the virus because of gaps in immunity between nursing with their mothers and building their own immune system. It should have a series of vaccinations administered beginning at 6-8 weeks and then every 2-4 weeks after until 16 weeks. The next vaccination is given one year later. Furthermore, vaccination boosters are given every one to three years depending on the dog’s antibody levels.
To ensure prevention of distemper for a puppy, pet parents should refrain from exposing their dogs to situations where they may easily contract distemper. If your puppy has not yet completed his vaccinations, exercise caution when taking dogs to places with many other dogs to avoid contracting the virus. This is also the reason why pet establishments reduce the risk of exposure to several diseases by requiring vaccinations.
What Pet Parents Should Know
As previously mentioned, that dogs that have recovered from distemper can shed the virus up to two to three months afterward. Just because a dog is well does not mean that your dog or puppy is in the clear and will not contract the virus from a recovered dog. Ask questions no matter where you go about the state of a facility and how their workers help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. It will leave you with the ease of mind of knowing that your dog will be safe from distemper.
At the same time, pet parents should make sure that if their pets have recently recovered from distemper, it is best to keep them isolated for a few more weeks or months. They must take the proper precautions to maintain the safety of other dogs.
Remember that distemper cannot be cured, and veterinarians depend on an animal’s own immune system to fight off the virus. This is why I advise every pet parent to be on top of their dog’s health and build a strong immune system starting from puppyhood.
Improve immune system
You can support your dog’s immune system by providing him with good nutrition via a proper diet with healthy ingredients; by making sure your dog stays hydrated with plenty of clean water throughout the day; receives an optimal amount of daily exercise; takes nutrient-rich vitamins and supplements; and continues to receive regular wellness checks. Lastly, keep your dog away from wildlife. It could potentially carry the disease and any feces, urine, or saliva left behind by wildlife on the sidewalks, street, or grass. Practicing good hygiene and cleanliness is just as effective in stopping communicable disease for dogs as it is for humans.
So make sure you wipe things down with mild soap and water when necessary.
Is Distemper virus deactivated quickly?
Luckily, the distemper virus can’t survive outside of a living host’s body longer than a few minutes. This means that the virus becomes deactivated quickly. Still, it’s important to take precautions when necessary. Stay vigilant and aware of any strange wildlife activity in your neighborhood. “If you see a raccoon lying on a sidewalk in the middle of the day, call [animal services] – and keep your dog on a tight leash,” wrote Raveena Aulakh for The Toronto Star during the recent outbreak in Toronta, Canada. Pet parents should heed that advice wherever they may be. Preventive measures are the best way to keep your puppy or dog safe from distemper.
Related Article: How to Treat Your Dog’s Bladder Infection
Can my dog recover from distemper?
Yes, a dog can fully recover from distemper. Dogs with strong immune systems typically recovers faster.
How long will a dog live with distemper?
If left untreated, distemper can be fatal. Older dogs can last up to several months, but if the virus starts attacking the nervous system, a sick dog will die in a matter of days.
Can a dog with distemper drink water?
Yes, a dog with distemper can and should drink water. Typically, dogs suffering from distemper will typically say no to food and water which causes dehydration. Fluid therapy is necessary.
Can antibiotic cure distemper in dogs?
Distemper in dogs is caused by a virus, and viruses are not eliminated by antibiotics. However, a vet may prescribe them to avoid complications such as secondary bacterial infections.