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Canine Distemper in dogs: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

labrador puppy laying on vet table
© all_about_people - Shutterstock

Canine distemper, though rare in the UK, is a very serious viral disease that can be fatal to dogs if left untreated. Unvaccinated dogs or puppies are most at risk of catching it.

By Justine Seraphin

Published on the 02/03/2021, 17:00

Canine distemper is a virus which mainly affects domestic dogs, though research has shown that domestic cats, big cats, and other wild animal species can catch it as well.

Canine distemper is a very serious virus which can affect various body systems, including the gastrointestinal and respiratory tract, as well as the central nervous system. If caught, the disease can be fatal. 

How common is canine distemper?

Thankfully, canine distemper is very rare nowadays thanks to the very effective distemper vaccinations which were introduced in the 1950’s. As long as you get your puppy vaccinated, and keep up to date with your adult dog’s boosters, your pets will be safe from the virus. Unvaccinated dogs and puppies, especially those living in less-than-ideal conditions (such as in illegal puppy farms), are most at risk of catching the virus.

How do dogs catch canine distemper?

The canine distemper virus (CDV) can be transmitted through direct contact with fresh urine, blood or saliva. This means that an infected dog can easily transmit the virus by coughing and sneezing around, or even sharing a food or water bowl with another animal.

What are the symptoms of canine distemper?

There are many symptoms of canine distemper which evolve and increase in seriousness as the virus spreads. Canine distemper will first affect the respiratory tract. Initial symptoms include:

As the infection spreads, the virus will affect the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms of this include:

At this point, a dog’s immune system may be strong enough to fight off the virus. However, the virus spreads extremely quickly. If you suspect your dog has been infected, you should see a vet urgently. When left untreated, the virus will spread to the central nervous system. Symptoms of this include:

  • Seizures
  • Convulsions
  • Head tilting
  • Twitching
  • Circling
  • Jaw chewing
  • Salivation
  • Limb weakness
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Imbalance

How do you treat canine distemper?

There is unfortunately no existing cure for the virus. If your vet has been able to confirm the diagnosis with a blood test, they may, however, provide supportive care. This includes intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and antibiotics to fight off secondary bacterial infections while your dog rebuilds their immune system. Your dog may also be prescribed medication to help control the seizures. 

What is the canine distemper vaccine?

The canine distemper vaccine is the best way to prevent your pet from catching the virus, so it’s very important to stay on top of it. The distemper vaccination will also protect your dog from parvovirus, parainfluenza, and adenovirus. 

Canine distemper vaccinations should start at 6 to 8 weeks of age for your puppy, i.e. before they arrive in their new home. A reputable breeder or rescue will be able to provide your puppy’s vaccination history before you take them home. Your puppy should then get their second and third distemper shots at 12 and 16 weeks of age. It’s a good idea to keep your puppy away from any unvaccinated dogs until they have completed this first set of vaccinations. Puppies should get their first booster 1 year after completing the initial course of vaccinations, then every 3 years or so after that

Can dogs recover from canine distemper?

If supportive care has been provided to your dog before the virus spreads to the central nervous system, there is a good chance that your dog will recover. However, if the canine distemper virus spreads to the central nervous system, there is a higher likelihood that it will cause serious long-lasting effects or even death. Dogs who live past this stage may still be left with permanent brain and nerve damage. Neurological signs of this, including seizures, may only show up years after infection, during their old age. 

Can humans be affected by canine distemper?

Humans cannot catch canine distemper. There is no chance that you will catch it if your dog has been infected. Though the virus has been compared to the measles virus, it cannot be passed on from a dog to a human. Likewise, measles cannot be passed on from a human to a dog.