Distemper in Dogs Causes, Symptoms,Treatment

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Abandoned dog
Abandoned Dog

During their lifetime, there's a change your dog may be exposed to distemper. Wild animals such as raccoons also harbor the virus so even decades of effective vaccination in the canine population hasn’t eradicated the disease. Vaccines provide the best protection for your dog.

What Is Distemper?

Distemper in puppies is a virus similar to human measles and is the most common canine infectious disease of the nervous system. The distemper virus also infects the wolf, coyote, raccoon, ferret, mink, skunk, otter, and weasel.

Symptoms of Distemper in Puppies

Pups often develop a characteristic thick white to yellow discharge from their eyes and nose that looks like a runny nose from a cold. While these early symptoms may look like an ordinary cold, they are in fact signs of serious disease. Other symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Yellowish gums
  • Diarrhea
  • Trouble breathing
  • Central nervous system symptoms such as seizures, behavior changes, weakness, and poor coordination
grayscale photo of german shepherd
grayscale photo of german shepherd

Infection of the respiratory system prompts puppies to cough and develop pneumonia. Gastrointestinal infection can cause bloody or mucus-filled diarrhea. Infected eyes may ulcerate or even become blind, and the skin (particularly the foot pads) may thicken, crack, and bleed.

Causes of Distemper

Distemper is highly contagious and often fatal. The virus is shed in the saliva, respiratory secretions, urine, and feces. Distemper spreads the same way a cold virus spreads in people: the virus is transmitted by sneezing and coughing.

Pups adopted from stressful sources like animal shelters, rescues, pet stores, or homeless pets are the most likely to contract the disease, especially during the 9- to 12-week age. Puppies can look healthy while they incubate the disease—even after vaccination—and become sick once in their new home. Diagnosis typically can be made based on the signs of disease.

Distemper Incubation Period

Incubation is the time it takes from exposure to the development of signs of disease. Within two days following infection, the virus spreads to lymph nodes and tonsils, and then throughout the body to bone marrow, spleen, and other lymph nodes.

man kneeling beside girl feeding dog in grayscale photograpy
man kneeling beside girl feeding dog in grayscale photograpy

Within five days, the virus begins to destroy white blood cells and puppies develop a fever for a day or two. The virus attacks various body tissues, especially cells that line the surfaces of the body like the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, urinary tract, and the mucous membranes lining the gastrointestinal tract. The virus also infects the kidney, liver, spleen, brain, and spinal cord. Whether or not the infected pup survives depends on the effectiveness of the dog's individual immune system.

By nine to 14 days following infection, 75 percent of dogs that have competent immune systems will defeat the virus. But young pups don't have mature immune systems; that's why about 85 percent of puppies exposed to the virus when they are less than a week old develop distemper within two to five weeks and die. Older puppies and adult dogs develop fatal disease only about 30 percent of the time.


There is no cure for the distemper virus; treatment comes from supportive care. Pups with severe symptoms usually die within three weeks unless hospitalized and given supportive care. Owners can provide some nursing care at home.

Stricken dogs may be given antibiotics to combat secondary infections that result from a suppressed immune system. Fluid therapy and medications help control diarrhea and vomiting to counteract dehydration. Anti-seizure medication may be necessary to control seizures. No single treatment is specific or always effective and it may take ongoing therapy for up to six weeks to conquer the disease.

brown long coated dog on window during daytime
brown long coated dog on window during daytime
white Siberian husky on grass field
white Siberian husky on grass field
shallow focus photo of Australian shepherd
shallow focus photo of Australian shepherd

Each pup responds differently to treatment. For some, the symptoms get better and then worsen before recovery. Others show no improvement despite aggressive treatment. Consult with your veterinarian before making the heartbreaking decision to euthanize a sick puppy.

Dogs that survive infection during puppyhood may suffer enamel hypoplasia—poorly developed tooth enamel that's pitted and discolored. Even dogs that recover from infection may suffer permanent damage to the central nervous system that results in recurrent seizures or palsy for the rest of the dog's life. Protect your puppy with preventive vaccinations as recommended by your veterinarian, and prevent contact with other unvaccinated dogs.

How to Prevent Distemper

By far the simplest and most effective way to prevent distemper is to vaccinate your puppy. Distemper vaccine is part of the DHPP combination vaccine; the letters stand for distemper, adenovirus 2 (canine infectious hepatitis), parainfluenza and parvovirus.

Recovered pups shed the virus for up to 90 days and can infect other healthy dogs. Sick dogs must be quarantined away from healthy animals. The virus can live in a frozen state for many years, thaw out, and still infect your dog. However, it is relatively unstable in hot or dry conditions and can be killed by most disinfectants such as household bleach.

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