For many of us, the thought of Canine Distemper isn’t on our minds when taking our dog to the vet for their yearly checkup. During the exam, the vet will most likely check the dog’s weight, heart-rate, bone structure, etc., and perform a host of other preventative measures to ensure our beloved canine companion has a clean bill of health.

One of the things we can usually expect during the examination, is the administering of some sort of vaccination to protect our beloved companion against a series of really nasty canine diseases. One of those diseases being Canine Distemper.

Most of us have probably heard of Canine Distemper before, and many are also probably aware that our dogs have received at least one vaccination for Distemper in their lifetime. Thankfully, this is usually all most dog owners will ever hear of or know of the dreaded disease. However, if your dog had somehow become infected with the Distemper virus, would you be able to spot it’s warning signs? Do you know how best to prevent it, aside from routine vaccinations, and do you know which dogs are most susceptible to it and when?

If the answers those questions are an emphatic “no”, not to worry. This article will help provide answers to those questions and discuss some of the main talking points about Canine Distemper. Included in the discussion are topics, such as, what the disease actually entails, how dogs can become infected with it, some of it’s warning signs and what to do if you think your dog may have contracted it.

What is Canine Distemper?

“The American Veterinary Medical Association defines Canine Distemper as “a highly contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respitory, gastrointestinal, and often, the nervous system of puppies and adult dogs. The virus also infects wild canids (e.g. foxes, wolves, coyotes), raccoons, skunks and ferrets.”

Dogs or puppies will usually become infected by being exposed to the respitory secretions of other animals infected with the virus. The virus can also be contracted through other bodily secretions, such as, an infected animal’s urine and/or feces.

The virus enters the unsuspecting animal’s nose or mouth and then very quickly begins it’s replication process. After about 24 hours, the virus has entered the lymph nodes of the lungs. After less than a week, it has spread to the stomach, liver, and other organs of the digestive tract.

Typically, the initial signs that a dog has been infected with Canine Distemper are sticky, pus-like, watery eyes and fever. The dog may also develop nasal discharge, loss of appetite, coughing, lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea. This is the Phase I of the infection.

Many younger puppies or dogs with weakened immune systems will often die during the first phase. Dogs with stronger immune systems may be able to fight-off the attack somewhat, and not show severe symptoms during the initial phase. They may not appear to be infected with the disease until Phase II, where it begins to strike the dog’s neurological system.

After the attack on the animal’s respitory and gastrointestinal tract, the virus will move onto Phase II. In this phase, it begins to attack the central nervous system. During the neurological phase, seizures can occur and severe twitching or even partial or complete paralysis are also possible. It may also cause the dog’s footpads to harden.

As one can clearly see from the discussion thusfar, Canine Distemper is a serious and life-threatening disease. Even if it doesn’t prove to be fatal, the potential damage it can cause to the dog’s nervous system can be irreparable.

What types of dogs are at risk?

Any dog, regardless of age is at risk, however; puppies younger than four months old and dogs that have not been vaccinated against the disease are at increased risk. Rescue and petstore dogs, puppies that have suspect or incomplete vaccination records are at the most risk from the Canine Distemper virus.

How is Canine Distemper diagnosed and what treatment options are available?

Veterinarians are able to diagnose Canine Distemper through physical examination and laboratory tests. If it is determined that a dog has contracted the virus, the vet will prescribe a plan which focuses on treating the secondary effects of the virus, namely preventing infections, controlling vomiting and/or diarrhea, and the neurological symptoms present.

There is no specific drug treatment currently available that will kill the Canine Distemper virus itself. The dog will also receive treatment to prevent dehydration. Recovery from Canine Distemper is about enhancing immunity, with the major treatment being supportive care, while the dog’s immune system tries to mount it’s own response to the virus.

What can I do to protect my dog from contracting Canine Distemper?

The best protection against Canine Distemper is to make sure your dog sees his or her vet for regularly scheduled checkups, and is current on all his vaccinations. Prevention is definitely the best medicine when it comes to this and any other life-threatening illness. Make sure your dog isn’t able to come into contact with known infected dogs, and other potentially infected wildlife, such as raccoons, foxes, and skunks, among others.

Preventative medicine is critical in protecting your dog or young puppy from contracting Canine Distemper. Until a puppy has received it’s full complement of vaccinations, it is very susceptible to contracting the disease. It’s imperative that pet owners use caution where they take their new puppy before the puppy has been fully vaccinated. Places where other puppies, and/or adult dogs are common, such as pet stores, parks, training classes, groomers, etc…should be avoided until the puppy has had all it’s shots.

“Owners should really only consider taking their new puppy to reputable establishments and training programs which reduce exposure risk by requiring appropriate, up-to-date vaccinations.”

Thankfully, since effective vaccinations have been around since the 1950’s, Canine Distemper is a very rare disease in today’s society, raring it’s ugly head mainly in the shelter, rescue and pet store world. The important thing to remember is that prevention is key. Ensure your dog stays current on all his shots and, since Canine Distemper is so serious and can show so many varying levels of effects or symptoms, it’s crucial that any sick dog be taken to their vet for examination immediately.


  1. Great article. As a pet owner of many many years, I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know all this about distemper. Thanks for the article. I find this also very helpful, and hope your other readers do too, dog disease

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