Canine Distemper

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on September 05, 2023
3 min read

Canine distemper is a highly contagious virus caused by the paramyxovirus. It is seen in dogs around the world, but it can also affect ferrets, racoons, skunks, grey foxes, and many other animals.

Canine distemper affects the gastrointestinal, respiratory, skin, immune, and central nervous systems. Symptoms can take up to 14 days to show up after exposure.

Signs and symptoms of canine distemper include:

Canine distemper may also cause brain inflammation and neurological symptoms, which is often confused with rabies. Neurological symptoms of canine distemper include:

  • Muscle twitching
  • Chewing-gum fits
  • Excessive saliva
  • Head tilt
  • Circling
  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Paralysis or partial paralysis
  • Seizures

At first, you may not notice symptoms of canine distemper, and it can be mistaken for other viruses and infections. Your dog can get a mild or severe case and may have symptoms that only last 10 days. However, neurological symptoms may be delayed and show up months after infection.

Canine distemper is caused by the paramyxovirus virus. Animals get infected from contact with infected urine, blood, saliva, or respiratory droplets. Of these, transmission usually happens through droplets. It can be spread through coughing and sneezing or contaminated food and water bowls. 

Canine distemper can occur year round, but the virus is resistant to cold. The majority of cases in domestic dogs occur in the late fall and winter.

Your dog can get canine distemper by being around other dogs or wild animals that have the virus. Puppies or older dogs that haven’t been vaccinated are most vulnerable. Dogs in shelters may also be vulnerable since their vaccinations may not be up to date. 

You should visit your vet when your dog shows any signs of canine distemper or you’re concerned about your dog’s health. Canine distemper is highly contagious among animals and requires aggressive medical treatment.

You should also see the vet if:

  • You don’t know your dog’s vaccination history
  • Your puppy is six weeks old and ready for a vaccination
  • Your dog has been exposed to other animals with distemper

Your vet will need to examine your dog to diagnose canine distemper. Sometimes signs of canine distemper don’t always appear right away, and it may look like other diseases or infections.

Your vet may run different tests to rule out conditions like:

Your vet may take throat, nose, or eye swabs, or urine or bone marrow samples. Testing these samples will help look for viral infection. They may also test blood or spinal fluid for antibodies or take biopsies of the footpad to test for viral DNA.

There is no cure for canine distemper, but your vet can recommend supportive care and symptom treatment.

Some treatments for canine distemper may include:

  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics
  • Pain relievers
  • Seizure medications
  • Electrolytes
  • IV nutrition
  • Fever reducers
  • Hospitalization

It’s important to visit your vet right away if you suspect your dog is sick. Immediate and aggressive treatment may help your dog recover completely, but sometimes neurological symptoms persist in some animals. In these cases, your vet may prescribe immune system medications, anti-inflammatories, or steroids, but they’re not always successful.

For some dogs, canine distemper can be serious and fatal.

You can prevent canine distemper in puppies and your adult dog through vaccination. Puppies can receive the distemper vaccine at six weeks old and then every three to four weeks until 16 weeks old. Immunity may last for three years or more, but your vet may recommend a specific vaccine schedule based on how common distemper is in your area. 

If your dog can’t be vaccinated, avoid other dogs that are sick or that may have the virus. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise program and clean your dog’s living area regularly. While these may not directly prevent distemper, they will help keep your dog healthy.

Before taking your dog to a boarding kennel, make sure your dog is vaccinated and healthy.

Canine distemper in puppies is serious and often fatal as puppies are more susceptible to viral infections. Adult dogs can recover from canine distemper but often have lasting neurological or central nervous disorders like:

  • Seizures
  • Muscle twitching
  • Jaw spasms
  • Nerve damage
  • Brain damage

These signs may not appear until after recovery or later in life.