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    Canine Distemper: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

    November 03, 2022 | 3 min read

    Updated November 03, 2022


    Published: November 6, 2022
    Updated: May 11, 2023

    Summary: In this blog, we learn all about the canine distemper virus. We’ll discover what causes canine distemper, the symptoms to look for, and the treatment for canine distemper, including the vaccine


    What Is Canine Distemper?

    If you’re wondering “what is canine distemper?”, it’s a very dangerous virus. Once upon a time, canine distemper could wipe out an entire neighborhood of pet dogs at a time. The canine distemper virus invades the nervous system and as a result, is potentially fatal. 

    Canine distemper is airborne, so can be transmitted between dogs through sneezing and coughing or it can also be transmitted through touch. Additionally, it can be transmitted from mother to pup via the placenta. In some cases, it’s been transmitted through an infected dog’s urine.  So, it's very contagious.

    Nowadays though, it’s extremely rare thanks to the development of science and an incredibly effective, safe vaccine. However, it still poses a risk to doggies who aren’t up-to-date on their vaccinations and puppies that have been born in poor conditions and haven’t received appropriate care.

    The Canine Distemper Symptoms

    Initially, canine distemper symptoms can be tricky to identify. 

    Symptoms start with a lack of interest in food, coughing, mucus on the eye and nasal discharge, pneumonia, and/or an inconsistent fever. 

    As the infection develops, these symptoms can progress. In this more advanced stage, vomiting, diarrhea, a thickened nose and thickened, hard paw pads become present. 

    1-3 weeks after these initial symptoms appear, and often after they seem to have cleared, the central nervous system can begin to become severely affected, especially if a dog’s immune system hasn’t been able to effectively fight off the viral load.

    At this point, symptoms can include twitching, muscle stiffness, limb weakness, paralysis, poor balance, and/or seizures that can range from slight tremors to full-on fits affecting the whole body. 

    You need to contact a vet as soon as you spot any of these signs, particularly if your dog isn’t vaccinated. The earlier the better.

    a brown and white border collie puppy rubs nose with an adult black and white border collie

    Treating Canine Distemper

    Canine distemper can be difficult to diagnose, but if suspected, your vet will most likely issue a blood test to determine the presence of the canine distemper virus in their body. 

    There is no cure for the canine distemper virus. All the vet can do is help support your dog’s body and their immune system to fight it off via fluid to maintain their hydration levels and medicine to prevent seizures. 

    The earlier canine distemper is caught by your vet, the more likely a full recovery can be made. If the virus gets to the later stages where it begins to affect a pup neurologically (causing things like seizures), then ongoing, lifelong health problems can occur like nerve or brain damage, or it may prove fatal. 

    Getting your dog vaccinated is the only way to properly support your dog against this potentially devastating virus. 

    Canine Distemper Vaccine

    Puppies are usually first offered and administered a set of shots at 6-8 weeks old, which includes the canine distemper virus vaccine. They will then be administered another set of shots 2-4 weeks later. 

    Once these initial vaccinations have been given to your pup, they will need to return yearly to their vet for booster shots. This will ensure their immunity is kept up. If you miss these yearly appointments, your dog is more at risk of developing serious illnesses like canine distemper and they may even need to restart their entire vaccination process dependent on which shot has lapsed. 

    Different vaccines last for different amounts of time, so your dog won’t be administered the same shot(s) every year. Your vet will keep a schedule of this so they know which to administer annually. This is why you should always stay on top of your dog’s vaccination appointments if you want to be sure they’re properly protected. 

    If your puppy has only had one set of shots, they shouldn’t be going out of the house/your yard or be in contact with other dogs until 2 weeks have passed. If you have to go out with your puppy before this time, make sure you carry them and don’t put them on the ground or let them interact closely with dogs. 

    Canine distemper virus can also be incredibly expensive to treat. Vaccinating your pup against this aggressive virus, and ensuring your dog from the moment of ownership, before any signs of sickness begin, is highly recommended.

    a golden Labradoodle puppy rests on their side in a cream and blue dog bed

    Can Cats Get Canine Distemper?

    Canine distemper and feline distemper are different viruses despite their similarity in name. A dog cannot pass canine distemper onto a feline, and a cat can’t transmit feline distemper to a canine. 

    However, if you own a pet ferret this form is transmissible back and forth between them and dogs. So, vaccinate your ferret too. 

    Can Humans Be Affected By Canine Distemper?

    Despite canine distemper being closely related to measles; a human virus, canine distemper cannot be transmitted to human beings and vice versa. 


    "Canine Distemper" Blue Cross

    "Distemper In Dogs" Apr. 2020 PDSA

    Author Burke, Anna "Distemper In Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment" Nov 15. 2016, American Kennel Club

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    The information contained within this site is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or veterinary advice. PetLab Co. is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If your pet has, or you suspect your pet has any medical condition, you are urged to consult your veterinarian. Medical conditions can only be diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Results May Vary. Not intended for human consumption. Please consult your veterinarian regarding any change in treatment or supplementation.
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