How to keep your dog safe from distemper

Because it is easily transmitted between infected animals, distemper can be a frightening disease for pet parents who own a puppy, or that are unsure of their adopted dog’s vaccination history. 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 recently, including in The Toronto Star, where the news outlet covered the distemper outbreak in Toronto, Canada, that started in May 2009 and has continued to run rampant. Find A Vet also recently reported that other areas have similarly encountered the disease, including Horry County, S.C., Cumberland County, N.C., and Orange County, Fla.

Outbreaks can occur anywhere, and pet parents should always be prepared to ensure their pets’ best health. Due to the recent media attention on distemper, Find A Vet wanted to shed more light on the disease and help pet parents take the proper steps toward supporting their pet’s well being. Having information at your fingertips can go a long way in preventing distemper in your pet.

What is Distemper?

Many may not know that distemper is a close relative to the human disease called measles. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, distemper is “a paramyxovirus” that 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). Other members of the Canidae family that can contract and spread distemper include foxes, wolves, coyotes, mink, skunks, raccoons, and ferrets. In fact, 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 caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and often, the nervous systems of puppies and dogs.” It’s true that all dogs are at risk for contracting distemper, but the AVMA says to pay special attention to puppies under four months old and dogs that have not been vaccinated against canine distemper.

How is Distemper Transmitted? What are the Symptoms?

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. Coughing, explains Mar Vista Animal Medical Center, is one of the most typical ways that dogs become infected with the distemper virus.

“The virus enters the new host via the nose or mouth and promptly begins to replicate,” says Mar Vista. “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. And according to the Encylopedia Britannica, it’s at this point that a dog may also become apathetic and refuse food and water.

Further symptoms according to the AVMA, Mar Vista, and Britannica 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
  • Lethargy

In its advance stages, distemper results in more serious symptoms, as described by Mar Vista and the AVMA:

  • Involuntary muscular twitching (chorea)
  • Posterior paralysis
  • Convulsions
  • Callusing of the nose and foot pads
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Imbalance
  • Weak limbs

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 to prevent spreading the virus 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, the virus doesn’t replicate in the human body, says Mar Vista. So, though humans can get infected with the virus, they won’t develop illness and symptoms that go along with the virus.

How is 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. Mar Vista explains that most veterinarians will make a “clinical diagnosis” of a dog with distemper, meaning that they will look at the overall state of a dog’s illness and make an educated determination in conjunction with test results.

“[T]he veterinarian must look at the whole picture: what symptoms are there, is the history typical, etc.,” says Mar Vista. “The virus itself remains elusive so that positive test results are meaningful in confirming the infection, but negative results do not rule it out.” Your veterinarian may do any of the following tests: testing distemper inclusion bodies, testing distemper antibody levels, PCR testing, and testing cerebrospinal fluid antibody levels.

As Mar Vista explains, distemper inclusion bodies are “actual clumps of virus that are visible under the microscrope within infected cells.” 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 immunocytology, 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 that the problem with this particular test is that 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 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,” says Mar Vista.

How is Distemper Treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for 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 is Distemper Prevented?

The best thing pet parents can do to prevent distemper in their dogs is to have 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 and what potential side effects or risks are involved.

Vet lists the following as some minor side effects of the vaccine:

  • Lethargy
  • 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, should have a series of vaccinations administered “beginning at age 6-8 weeks and then every 2-4 weeks thereafter until age 16 weeks,” says Mar Vista. “The next vaccine is one year later. After that, subsequent vaccination boosters are given every one to three years or based on antibody levels depending on the policy of the supervising animal hospital.”

To ensure prevention of distemper for a puppy, pet parents should refrain from exposing their dogs to situations where they may easily contract distemper, says the AVMA. “Until a puppy has received its complete series of vaccinations, pet owners should use caution when taking their pet to places where young puppies congregate (e.g. pet shops, parks, puppy classes, obedience classes, doggy daycare, and grooming establishments),” explains the AVMA. “Reputable establishments and training programs reduce exposure risk by requiring vaccinations, health examinations, good hygiene, and isolation of ill puppies and dogs.”

So make sure that wherever you bring your pet that precautions have been taken by both you and those in the area to ensure every animal’s health. Also be aware, 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’s 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 diseases. It’ll leave you with the ease of mind of knowing that your dog will be safe from distemper.

Vice versa, explains Mar Vista, pet parents should make sure that if their pets have recently recovered from distemper, they are careful where they take them. They must take the proper precautions to maintain the safety of other dogs. Because distemper cannot be cured, and because veterinarians depend on an animal’s own immune system to fight off the virus, pet parents can do a lot from home to help increase their pets’ chances of survival in case of infection. “As with any disease caused by a virus, treatment is largely supportive. Good animal care practices and nutrition assist dogs in mounting an effective immune response,” says the AVMA.

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 that 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.

Luckily, the distemper virus can’t survive outside of a living host’s body longer than a few minutes, says Mar Vista. 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. If normally nocturnal animals are found in the daytime incapacitated or deceased, animal services should be called immediately. Preventive measure are the best way to keep your puppy or dog safe from distemper.

Diane Simmons

This is Dianne Simons, and this is a short description of me. I am an author at, pet veterinarian and dog afficionado. I publish regular posts regarding dog related health topics as i have spent my whole life exercising it. My passion for our beloved companions go beyond this website as i run my own verinary center in Idaho

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