Distemper: The Scourge of the Canine World

Canine distemper is an extremely communicable, multi-systemic viral illness that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems. Distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus, which is similar to the germ that causes measles in humans.

It can’t be stressed enough how deadly distemper is.  If an unvaccinated dog gets it, up to 50 percent of adult dogs and up to 80 percent of puppies will die. And even those that survive are usually severely compromised and can be weak the rest of their lives.

For example, puppies that get distemper and survive usually have severely damaged enamel on their teeth, and some survivors have thickened and hard foot pads, which is why you sometimes hear distemper called “hardpad disease.”

What Are the Symptoms?

  • Eye discharge, ranging from pus-like to a watery appearance.
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Labored breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydrated and excessive thirst
  • Nasal discharge
  • Seizures
  • Listlessness
  • Occasional weakness and emaciation

Neurological symptoms can occur several weeks after the clinical symptoms, in fact some dogs are thought to have recovered, only to have these symptoms appear weeks after the other symptoms subside.  These symptoms can include:

  • Muscle twitching
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Seizures (of any part of the body, but seizures that look as if the dog is chewing gum are unique to distemper)
  • Convulsive movements of the head and paws

How Does A Dog Get Distemper?

Distemper is passed through the bodily fluids of an infected dog, usually by the infected animal sneezing or coughing onto the healthy dog. The germs appear in the infected dog’s saliva, urine, feces and nasal discharge. It’s rare for a dog to get it from something like contact with an infected animal’s food dish, as the virus germs can’t live long on such objects.

Within about two to five days the virus makes its way into a dog’s lymphatic tissue, and then by the next few days has made it into a dog’s bloodstream. It can then spread to other bodily systems such as the lungs, intestines, bladder and nervous system.

While you can’t catch distemper from your dog, you can infect other dogs by getting the germs on your clothes, shoes or hands if you have been around dogs that have distemper, so be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and wash clothes in hot, soapy water with bleach to kill the germs. Don’t handle other pets before getting rid of the germs you may have picked up.

Other dogs should be kept away from any infected animals and a good disinfectant containing phenol, or a 1:20 dilution of household bleach should be used to clean the kennel, floor, toys, food dishes, etc from the infected animals.


One of the main reasons a dog gets distemper is because it either wasn’t vaccinated or it didn’t get any immunity from the mother dog in the weeks before immunization is possible. Before the modern distemper vaccination protocol was developed, many dogs died of this deadly disease. The best thing you can do for your pet is to get the proper vaccinations they need so you don’t have to be concerned about him getting distemper.

The dog distemper vaccination usually is given at about six to eight weeks of age, then every two to four weeks until the dog is 16 weeks old. After that the dog gets a booster a year later, and then every three years. The shot usually has not only protection against distemper, but also from parvovirus, parinfluenza, adenovirus, letospirosis and sometimes cornonavirus. Talk to your veterinarian to be sure which formula is the best for your pet.

Who Can Catch Distemper?

Usually puppies between three and six months are the dogs that come down with distemper, usually because they were not vaccinated after they were weaned from their mothers. However, any unvaccinated animals can develop this deadly illness. Older unvaccinated dogs can also catch it, but usually have a milder form than puppies.

Treatment for Distemper

There is NO cure for distemper. I say again, there is NO cure for distemper. That’s why it’s vital for owners to get their pets immunized. About the only thing a veterinarian can do is give supportive care such as intravenous fluids and anti-seizure medicine if the dog gets the neurological part of the disease.

One positive note in this sea of despair is that if you own both dogs and cats, your cats can’t catch the canine version of distemper. What we know as cat distemper is an entirely different disease and dogs can’t get it either.

Conclusion for Distemper: The Scourge of the Canine World

Distemper is a deadly, usually fatal, disease that attacks dogs’ respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems. It can be prevented through proper vaccination.

Bottom line? Get your dog vaccinated against canine distemper, the scourge of the doggy world.


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