Distemper is a contagious viral illness that can be carried by and affect various animals, including dogs. Although it is preventable, there is no cure for the canine distemper virus, and many dogs who contract it succumb to symptoms (Vandevelde et al. 1995). Today we’re covering everything you need to know about canine distemper in order to recognize the symptoms and get your dog the treatment that he needs.

Canine distemper is just one of the variations of the distemper virus that affects mammals. The virus itself is a relative of the human measles virus (Summers et al. 1994). The canine distemper virus is extremely contagious and is spread via the air or indirect or direct contact with an infected dog.

Several studies have shown the pathway of how the virus takes over the body. In most cases, this incurable virus begins by attacking the tonsils and lymph nodes in dogs. For a week, the virus replicates itself before launching an attack on the dog's nervous system, urogenital system, respiratory system and gastrointestinal system.

Let's take a closer look at the causes of this virus, the symptoms you should be looking for and what you can do to prevent your dog from contracting the canine distemper virus.

Canine Distemper Virus
The Ultimate Dog Owner’s Guide

Canine Distemper Virus

When Is a Dog Vaccinated Against Canine Distemper?

There is evidence that vaccines can help to prevent and/or keep canine distemper virus under control in dogs (Martella et al. 2008). A dog is first vaccinated against canine distemper as a puppy in a series of vaccinations. Most commonly they receive a distemper vaccination first at 6-8 weeks, again at 10-12 weeks, again at 14-16 weeks, and again at 12 months. The vaccination is then given again every 1 to 2 years.

More recent research suggests that a single vaccination between 12-16 weeks of age is enough to provide lifelong protection against the virus, according to PetMD. This claim is still being substantiated.

What Animals Carry Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper can be carried by infected:

  • dogs
  • wolves
  • foxes
  • raccoons
  • skunks
  • ferrets

Cross-species transmission: Canine distemper virus is also one of the rare diseases that has the ability to cross species, meaning that your dog can be infected with CDV from any of the above mentioned animals (Beineke et al. 2005).

Symptoms of Canine Distemper in Dogs

When the canine distemper virus first begins to display symptoms, the first thing you may notice is a fever. A dog’s temperature is usually between 101 and 102.5 degrees. With distemper, a fever of 103.5 is not uncommon.

Along with fever, your dog’s eyes will also become red and they will have a discharge from their eyes and nose. This discharge has a watery consistency. Following this, your dog will begin to seem tired and lethargic and will likely refuse to eat. This may be accompanied by diarrhea, coughing, or vomiting.

Dogs with distemper are also more susceptible to secondary infections like pneumonia (Rodriguez-Tovar et al. 2007). In some variations of canine distemper, the paw pads may also swell and harden. As distemper progresses and the nervous system is affected, your dog may have seizures, show signs of paralysis, or display “odd” behaviors.

When symptoms are left untreated or when very young dogs, elderly dogs or dogs with a compromised immune system are affected by the virus, they may succumb within two to five weeks after infection. This why it is so important to discuss the canine distemper virus with your vet the minute you notice symptoms.

VIDEO GUIDE: How To Take A Dog's Temperature With A Thermometer

Puppy Vaccine Schedule

What Causes Distemper?

Primarily it is an owner’s refusal to vaccinate their dog that leads to the most cases of distemper. Dogs may also contract distemper from a “bad batch” of the vaccine.

Some dogs contract distemper as a result of a gastrointestinal or respiratory infection that makes them more vulnerable to infection. Lastly, any dog that has yet to receive a vaccination due to age or living as a stray, has a good chance of contracting distemper if they come in to contact with the canine distemper virus in their environment or other animals with CDV.

How is Canine Distemper Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of distemper is made once symptoms are noted in a dog. From here a urinalysis and blood test can reveal the infection. A dog with distemper will likely show low levels of white blood cells, as well as possible positive antibodies for distemper.

A urinalysis will also show distemper antigens in the urine.

In later stages of the virus, other tests that may prove beneficial are x-rays, CT scans, and MRI scans. These tests are used to identify the severity of damage to the lungs, brain and other major organs.

How is Canine Distemper Treated?

Canine Distemper VirusThere is currently no cure for canine distemper virus.

Veterinarians can treat the symptoms of the virus and provide supplementary care to help your dog fight it, but they cannot cure it.

Some of the common forms of symptom treatment include IV fluids, cleansing of the eyes and nose, administration of antibiotics to attack secondary infections, and seizure control medications if needed.

The sooner a dog begins receiving care for their symptoms, the better their likelihood of recovery – so long as they are not a member of an at-risk population.It's important that you know the symptoms of the canine distemper virus and report any of these symptoms to your vet at the first sign.

RELATED: Dog Vaccination Schedule (and what shots do puppies need)

What Is the Likely Outcome for Dogs with Distemper?

The outcome of a dog’s illness with distemper depends on a variety of factors. Most importantly, how healthy is the dog? A dog that has an underdeveloped or compromised immune system is going to have a much riskier prognosis than an otherwise healthy adult dog.

Another factor that influences whether a dog will survive a bout with distemper is the strain of the virus that they contract. Like the flu, the distemper virus is constantly evolving and developing into different strains (Kapil et al. 2008). The more severe strains obviously being much more dangerous.

Although a dog may recover completely from distemper, it is not unusual for some symptoms to continue or resurface months later. Severe cases of distemper may leave lifelong after-effects as a result of damage to the nervous system or other major organs.

Preventing Canine Distemper Virus

Canine Distemper VirusThe best way to prevent canine distemper is to keep your dog up to date on their vaccinations. So long as your dog has antibodies against the distemper virus in their body, they are going to be able to fight the illness. Keep in mind, though, that it can take up to fourteen days for a vaccination to take full effect!

If a dog is not yet old enough to receive their canine distemper virus vaccination or is too ill to be vaccinated, it is crucial to keep them away from other dogs. You should also keep your dog away from areas that other dogs frequent in your neighborhood. In this situation, it is best to stick to your own backyard for potty breaks.

If a dog begins to show signs of distemper, you can help prevent the spread of the virus by quarantining your dog. If you have multiple dogs, the chances are that they have all come in to contact with the virus, so keep them all away from other dogs. This includes the vet waiting room!

If you are taking your potentially infected dog to the vet, call ahead and explain the situation. Ask for an alternative entrance to the clinic if there is one and ask to be taken straight into an exam room. This cuts down any exposure that other animals at the vet will have to the virus.

Are There Any Risks Associated with the Distemper Vaccine?

Although considered relatively safe for healthy dogs, a few dogs have experienced side effects from the distemper vaccine. It is important to weigh the possible risk of side effects with the possible risk of contracting a disease without a cure.

Distemper vaccination side effects may include:

  • appetite loss
  • lethargy
  • swelling around the injection site
  • fever
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • anaphylaxis

If you notice any of these symptoms after your dog receives their vaccination notify their vet IMMEDIATELY. Also, have your vet make a note in your dog’s chart to remind them for future vaccinations that your dog has had a reaction to the vaccine previously.

MORE: 25 Most Serious Dog Health Symptoms That Cannot Be Ignored

Can Dogs Get Distemper Even If They Have Been Vaccinated?

Canine Distemper VirusYes! There are a few reasons why a dog may still contract a disease that they have been vaccinated against.

Firstly, at the time of vaccination, the dog’s immune system may have been poorly functioning. This means that when the altered virus was injected into the body, the immune system did not recognize it as a threat and did not make antibodies to fight it.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the vaccination may be compromised in some way. This can happen when a vaccine is made improperly, stored poorly, or is contaminated. This means that the vaccine itself is ineffective because it is not recognizable in comparison to the actual virus.

Lastly, the strain of virus that the vaccine protected against may be different than the strain of virus your dog contracted. This is happening with increased frequency as viruses mutate in response to traditional treatments.

Should a Dog Be Vaccinated Against Distemper If…

In some situations, it may be questionable as to whether a canine distemper virus vaccination would do more harm than good. I'll discuss some of the most common issues that may cause a pet owner to question whether or not their dog should be vaccinated. Remember, if you have any doubts, speak with your vet!

Dogs that have had previous vaccine reactions should be evaluated on an individual basis by their vet. There are many factors that could play into previous reactions and the likelihood of those reactions happening again.

Canine Distemper VirusDogs with the MDR1 gene defect should be evaluated individually as well. These dogs (particularly collie breeds) have a gene defect which increases the likelihood of adverse drug reactions. In most cases, veterinarians will avoid vaccines and other medications for these dogs due to the high likelihood of life-threatening drug reactions like encephalitis.

Dogs that have a compromised immune system – for example those undergoing cancer treatments – are generally not given the vaccination they require until they are healthier. The reason for this is that the immune system will not give the “proper” response to the virus which can make your dog extremely sick and also render the vaccine ineffective.

Senior dog parents often ask if their dog must be vaccinated. Many older dogs have compromised immune systems which can cause problems with vaccinations. The best way to handle this is on an individual basis. Talk to your vet and suggest running titer blood test prior to any vaccines. Titers will ensure that your dog has enough antibodies in their blood against distemper so that you can avoid unnecessary vaccination.

Make Sure That Your Dog is Protected

As your dog’s parent, it’s your job to make sure that they are protected against the canine distemper virus. This doesn’t necessarily mean repeated vaccinations. You can choose to run titer tests to check for immunity. Whether you run titers or choose to simply vaccinate is up to you, but for your dog’s health, never just choose to do nothing!

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Canine Distemper Virus - The Ultimate Dog Owner’s Guide

Diana currently lives and works in London, UK and she's been an animal lover and dog owner since she was a child. After graduating high school, she focused on getting her degree in English to become a writer with a focus on animals, pets and dogs.