Canine distemper is a familiar term to most dog owners, but what is distemper? What are the signs you need to look out for? Is it treatable? How do you prevent it? Naturally, you may have many questions about this potentially fatal viral disease of dogs that has also been found in foxes, coyotes, ferrets, and other wild animals. 

Distemper is quite contagious and can easily be transmitted between dogs, but the virus can also spread through other, often unsuspected, ways. The good news is that canine distemper is easily preventable thanks to a reliable vaccine. 

Following is everything pet owners need to know about canine distemper including how to keep their beloved canine companions protected. 

What Is Distemper in Dogs and What Are the Signs?

Canine distemper describes a condition caused by the distemper virus, which belongs to the viral family Paramyxoviridae. When infection occurs, the distemper virus replicates and progresses through various body systems, including the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, skin, and nervous systems. Typically, gastrointestinal signs are observed first, with respiratory and other signs following shortly after.   Additionally, secondary bacterial infections may occur, further complicating the disease. If left untreated, canine distemper can quickly become fatal. Not every dog with distemper will present the same way.

Typically, the initial signs of canine distemper are similar to other viral infections, and their severity can depend on the dog’s underlying immune status and general health. 

Early signs of canine distemper may include:

  • Clear or purulent eye discharge
  • Nasal discharge
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing

As distemper progresses in the body, gastrointestinal and respiratory signs may worsen, potentially leading to pneumonia, dehydration, and other complications. Eventually, the skin and nervous system become affected, in which case the following signs may be observed:

  • Thickening of the nose and paw pads, lending the moniker, “hard pad disease” 
  • Skin sores
  • Muscle twitching
  • Head tilt or circling
  • Excessive salivation
  • “Chewing gum fits”
  • Seizures
  • Partial or full paralysis
  • Tooth enamel deficits 

Due to the potential neurologic components of the disease, distemper often resembles rabies. Sadly, death is a common result of distemper infection, especially if treatment is delayed. Dogs that do survive can be left with long-term nervous system damage.

How Do Dogs Get Distemper?

Canine distemper is highly transmissible. It can be a problem year-round but is most commonly diagnosed in the fall and winter, as the virus is highly resistant to cold temperatures. Dogs typically become infected via airborne transmission when a vulnerable pet comes into close contact with a coughing or sneezing distemper-positive dog. They can also pick up the disease from infected urine, blood, feces, or simply by sharing food and water bowls. 

What Dogs Are Most Vulnerable to Canine Distemper?

Puppies under 16 weeks of age that are not fully vaccinated are highly vulnerable to distemper.  Because puppy vaccinations should be completed according to a strict schedule, owners must protect their puppies from the danger of distemper during their first few months of life. 

Stray dogs are also particularly vulnerable to distemper because they are unlikely to be vaccinated. Adult dogs in shelters without vaccination records, along with owned dogs who are not routinely brought to their veterinarian for wellness care are also potentially at risk until their immunization program is complete.

When To Ask a Veterinarian About Distemper

Veterinarians are animal experts who make canine health a top priority. All dogs should regularly visit their veterinarian for preventive and wellness care. To prevent distemper, it is particularly important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian in the following circumstances:

  • If you have a new puppy that is at least 6 weeks old without a vaccine history—one of the most critical vaccines the vet will administer is for distemper
  • When a new dog without a vaccination record joins the household
  • When a puppy or dog has been in contact with another pet or wild animal suspected to have distemper

Diagnosing Distemper in Dogs 

When a pet is suspected of having distemper, several tests may be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Since other diseases present with similar signs as distemper, ruling out certain conditions is important for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Detecting distemper in dogs can be done by obtaining a variety of different samples. Your veterinarian may take swabs from the nose, eyes, or throat. They may also take blood,  urine, or cerebrospinal fluid samples or suggest sending out biopsies of tissue, such as from hardened footpads. Samples are then sent to a laboratory where they can be assessed for antibodies, viral DNA, or viral antigens.   

How Is Distemper in Dogs Treated?

Unfortunately, distemper cannot be cured. However, with aggressive supportive care and an early diagnosis, affected dogs and puppies can overcome the virus. 

When clinical signs point to distemper, a veterinarian will perform tests to confirm the disease. Meanwhile, symptomatic treatment to minimize vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and any secondary infections will occur. If the affected pet has neurologic signs, additional treatments may be recommended. Most distemper-positive dogs will require hospitalization to ensure the best chances of survival.

Dogs with distemper should be isolated from other animals to prevent the disease from spreading—both in the hospital and at home. While many dogs with distemper eventually succumb to the disease, others may recover in as little as 10 days. However, even recovered dogs may show signs of delayed neurological damage weeks or months later. 

The following is a list of supportive treatments that may be recommended for dogs diagnosed with distemper:

Pain Relievers

Dogs, like people, can fight disease more successfully with proper pain relief. 

Fever Reducers

While fevers are beneficial to fighting infections, excessively high body temperatures may add unnecessary stress to a sick pet, potentially delaying healing.


Vomiting and diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration and the loss of electrolytes which are essential for proper nerve and muscle function. Administering electrolytes with intravenous fluids can help restore this balance. 

Broad-Spectrum Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not helpful in eliminating viral diseases like canine distemper. However, if secondary bacterial infections are suspected, which are common with this condition, antibiotics may be warranted.. 

Parenteral Nutrition

When pets are ill, they often refuse to eat, which can lead to detrimental effects and the inability to fight disease. While we cannot force pets to eat, utilizing feeding tubes ensures that sick pets receive the nutrients they need to fight disease.

The sooner canine distemper is diagnosed, the more helpful supportive treatment will be, so it is essential to have your pet evaluated immediately if your pet is ill. 

The Lasting Effects of Canine Distemper

Unfortunately, even pets that survive distemper, may not live normal lives after recovery. Lasting  signs of distemper may include:

  • Seizures or tremors
  • Muscle twitching
  • Jaw spasms
  • Permanent nerve damage
  • Tooth enamel defects

Many neurologic signs associated with distemper don’t become evident until weeks or months after the start of infection. Unfortunately, if neurologic signs manifest, affected pets may suffer long-lasting effects that require steroids, anti-inflammatories, or other medications to boost immune system function. 

How To Prevent Canine Distemper

Despite the guarded prognosis associated with distemper, pet owners can find comfort in knowing that the virus is easy to prevent with these effective methods:


Making sure puppies receive timely immunizations is essential. Ideally, puppies should receive their initial distemper vaccine between 6 and 8 weeks old. Additional vaccines are given every 3 to 4 weeks thereafter until the puppy reaches about 16 weeks old when the vaccination series is complete. Most puppies receive the distemper vaccine as part of a combination vaccine known as DAPP (Distemper, Adenovirus-2, Parvovirus, Parainfluenza). 

Ensure that adult dogs remain protected from distemper by revaccinating them according to your veterinarian’s guidelines to avoid gaps in protection. Typically, immunity lasts for three years, but if a dog lives in a high-risk environment, earlier revaccination may be recommended. 

Other Measures

Before your puppy completes their distemper vaccine series, keep them away from other puppies or adult dogs that may spread the disease. Socialization is incredibly important during this time period, but shouldn’t be allowed at the expense of potential exposure. Therefore, refrain from taking your unvaccinated puppy or dog to boarding kennels, dog shows, county fairs, dog parks, or other areas where they may encounter another pet with an unknown vaccination status. Additionally, you should vaccinate other pets in the home that may carry canine distemper, such as ferrets. 

Final Words About Canine Distemper

Distemper can be a serious, life-threatening condition for our canine companions and timely diagnosis and treatment are crucial in preventing severe disease. Fortunately, safe and effective vaccinations have made distemper far less common in the US dog population, but the virus continues to plague many regions. 

Working with an excellent veterinarian is essential for successful canine distemper prevention and treatment. If you are looking for a new veterinarian, be sure to choose one with an excellent reputation. Thanks to websites such as Angie’s List, Google, and Yelp, pet owners can find a reliable and reputable veterinarian at the click of a button. If your neighbors are happy with a service and post a good review, there is a good chance you will be satisfied, too. Recommendations from friends and neighbors are another useful resource, as is the veterinarian’s website, which will list a range of services offered and hours of operation. Make sure the veterinarian you select offers emergency consultations because emergencies rarely happen at convenient times!

Contact Us

Penny Paws Animal Clinic is dedicated to pet health and well-being. Our four clinics in Richland Hills, Fort Worth, Arlington/Mansfield, and Grand Prairie, Texas are staffed with caring professionals, from veterinarians to veterinary technicians, to support staff, all of whom put your pet’s comfort and care first. Our facilities offer a full range of services during in-office visits, mobile vaccination clinics, and telemedicine consultations. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your pet live a long and healthy life.