Dogs suffering from canine distemper are dealing with a highly contagious virus. Many pet owners aren’t aware of this disease which causes severe neurological issues. It’s challenging to detect symptoms and often mistaken for a different virus or infection, and mild cases can go almost entirely unnoticeable.

Here are some important considerations regarding canine distemper. Dog owners need to know the signs, symptoms, causes, and treatments to ensure their furry friend doesn’t suffer. Here’s what you can do to be more equipped to recognize and prevent this contagious disease.


You may have heard it when your dog is at the vet, but you probably didn’t know what it was. This disease can be fatal if not treated, so it’s apparent as a dog owner to understand what to look for when your dog contracts it.

Caused by a paramyxovirus, distemper in dogs is related to measles in humans. It causes severe illness by attacking systems in the body, giving your dog a widespread infection that’s challenging to treat. Canine distemper can be fatal and is highly contagious


There are only three ways dogs contract the canine distemper virus, and they are:

  • Airborne exposure to the virus
  • By direct contact with an infected animal or object
  • Through the placenta (birth)

The virus spreads primarily when it is airborne, like a cold. Infected dogs or other wildlife spread it through droplets that released into the environment or landed on objects, like food or water bowls, infect other animals when they come into contact. Usually, the virus doesn’t sustain itself long within the environment, and most disinfectants destroy it.

However, if an animal is infected, its infection can last for months, making it far easier for them to spread. Wild animals who are known to have distemper besides dogs include wolves, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, ferrets, and skunks.


Dogs can experience a wide range of symptoms when they contract distemper, which makes it very challenging to narrow down.   In any case, asking immediately your vet or a virtual vet if you’re not ready to take your dog in for an exam about the signs you’re seeing and its display is recommended. Your vet will let you know if they are cause for concern and if you should bring the dog in for testing.

Once dogs become infected, the virus attacks systems, including the lymphatic, nervous, respiratory, optic, and digestive. These system attacks result in what are known as stages of symptoms you’ll recognize.

Stage One

The first symptom most dogs display is a fever and discharge from their eyes. It’s usually accompanied by a loss of appetite and a runny nose. Many dogs get a fever within just a few days of being infected, but symptoms can depend on how severe the case of distemper is and how your dog reacts.

Many of the initial signs to watch out for that may indicate canine distemper include the following:

  • Fever
  • Clear runny nose
  • Eye discharge
  • Eye inflammation
  • Labored breathing and coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hardening of nose and footpads

If it happens to be a more severe case, you may notice inflammation of your dog’s spinal cord. Your dog may experience difficulty breathing and start to have other digestive issues, which can indicate a secondary bacterial infection on top of the virus.

Stage Two

Neurological signs can become apparent as the disease progresses in your dog because it attacks the central nervous system. These signs indicate you may have waited too long for effective treatment, so get your dog to the vet ASAP if you notice:

  • Circling
  • Paralysis
  • Head tilting
  • Seizures
  • Rapid eye movements (like the twitching of the eyes)
  • Muscle twitches
  • Convulsions

Distemper in canines can present some or all of these symptoms. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) experts state, “distemper is often fatal, and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage.”


There is no cure for canine distemper. Puppies under fourth months are usually most at risk for the disease, especially if they haven’t been fully vaccinated. There are no specific dog breeds more at risk of contracting the virus.

If your dog gets distemper, your vet must diagnose by conducting a combination of signs and diagnostic tests. Your vet may need to rule out other conditions like viral hepatitis, toxin poisoning, or rocky mountain spotted fever.

Once your dog has received a proper diagnosis, treatment depends on symptoms. Vets can treat diarrhea, vomiting, and neurological symptoms to prevent secondary infections. Usually, your vet recommends separating your dog from other animals to avoid spreading.

Your dog’s immune system will work to fight the virus, and survival depends on the strain. Some dogs can resolve this within ten days. But some cases show dogs with neurological symptoms for weeks and months after diagnosis.


A canine distemper vaccine is administered by your veterinarian to prevent it from happening, which is your best course of action. Some things you can do besides ensuring your pup gets the vaccine are:

  • Keeping distemper vaccines up-to-date, avoiding any gaps
  • Don’t socialize your puppy with other unvaccinated dogs, like taking your dog to a dog park. When you socialize, consider doing it with other friends’ dogs you know have received their vaccines.
  • When you adopt a dog, look for vaccination documents to ensure the animal has received the distemper vaccine and it’s up-to-date.
  • Keep your dog away from other wildlife that may be infected.

When you follow these steps, you can absolutely keep your dog safe from contracting canine distemper. As it should be with any concerns when they arise, contact your veterinarian for any unusual signs or symptoms. You know your dog best and being a responsible owner means ensuring your dog is safe!


A special thanks to Nicole McCray for writing the article


Canine Distemper_brief guide