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  • Canine distemper virus (CDV) is a highly contagious viral disease.
  • It spreads through airborne droplets when dogs bark, cough, or sneeze. It cannot infect humans or cats.
  • Distemper in dogs has a high mortality rate and is often fatal.
  • Puppies are more susceptible to the disease due to their weaker immune systems.
  • The DHPP or DAPP vaccine can prevent distemper and should be given according to your vet's instructions.

Distemper is a word that strikes fear into many pet parents, and with good reason. Distemper is a serious disease which affects dogs all over the world. It is one of the most deadly infectious diseases of domestic dogs, second only to rabies. 

Continue reading for an in-depth look at distemper in dogs including what it is, what causes it, how vets diagnose it, treatment options, and how you can prevent infection in your pup. 

What Is Distemper In Dogs? 

Distemper is a viral disease caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV) that mainly attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal (digestive), and nervous systems of dogs. It is frequently fatal. Distemper cannot be cured and may cause lifelong effects in survivors. 

Is Distemper Contagious? 

The canine distemper virus is highly contagious. Distemper infections in dogs can be spread to other dogs, ferrets, and to wild animals. 

Distemper is not a known zoonotic disease, meaning humans are not at risk of infection. Domestic cats can become infected with CDV but are unlikely to show any symptoms. This is not to be confused with feline distemper, which is caused by the feline panleukopenia virus.

If your dog is infected with distemper she may be infectious to other dogs for up to 2 to 3 months after symptoms subside. This is why it is crucial that pet parents isolate sick dogs from other dogs in order to prevent the spread of infection. 

Distemper In Puppies

Young puppies are most susceptible to developing serious disease caused by canine distemper. This is due to their immature immune systems which decreases their ability to fight infections. 

Also, most puppies are not fully vaccinated against distemper until they are 4 months of age, leaving them vulnerable to infection before this time. However, any unvaccinated dog is at risk of developing a serious infection. 

How Do Dogs Get Distemper? 

Puppies in animal shelter

Distemper is mainly spread by airborne droplets that are expelled when an infected dog coughs, barks, or sneezes. For this reason, it can run rampant in high-density dog housing such as shelters or kennels. Contact with bodily fluids can also spread the virus so shared water bowls, food bowls, and other contaminated surfaces can be a source of infection.

Pregnant mothers may also transmit distemper to their unborn puppies. Any breed of dog is susceptible to serious disease caused by distemper. 

Besides dogs, CDV infection is possible in a wide range of wild animals including, racoons, coyotes and foxes, so contact with wildlife is another possible way dogs may become infected. 

Distemper Symptoms In Dogs

Dog coughing

The distemper virus initially infects the respiratory tract and eyes and then will move to the digestive system. 

In many cases, dogs can build an immune response to halt progression at this stage. However, in some cases, the virus will begin to attack the nervous system, which often leads to death.  

Early symptoms of distemper in dogs include: 

  • Fever 
  • Thick green eye and nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Decreased appetite

Within a few days of developing initial symptoms, most dogs will then start to show symptoms of gastrointestinal upset, including vomiting and diarrhea. 

If distemper reaches the neurologic phase, symptoms will often include: 

  • Tremors
  • Muscle spasms
  • Gum chewing fits 
  • Focal and/or full body seizures 

Once a dog starts to have generalized seizures from distemper, it is often not controllable with seizure medication and the dog will need to be euthanized to relieve suffering. 

Diagnosing Distemper In Dogs

Since dogs infected with distemper can display a wide range of symptoms, it can be confused for other infectious diseases such as infectious tracheobronchitis (aka “kennel cough”) and parvo

The best method of diagnosing distemper in dogs is with a PCR test performed by your veterinarian. Samples for this test are taken by swabbing the eyes, nostrils, and throat. This can be a test specifically for distemper if your veterinarian is highly suspicious of this infection, or it may be part of a respiratory PCR panel, which will test for a variety of bacteria and viruses that cause abnormal respiratory symptoms. 

If your dog has already received one or more distemper vaccines, it is important for your veterinarian to perform a quantitative PCR test, which will help to distinguish between a recent vaccination and a true infection with CDV. 

Distemper In Dogs Treatment

Veterinarian treating a puppy

There is no specific treatment or cure for distemper and veterinary care is aimed at controlling the symptoms and preventing secondary bacterial infections. 

If your dog is diagnosed with distemper or an infection is considered highly likely, your dog may need to be hospitalized for a few days or treatment may be carried out from home depending on the severity of symptoms.

General Cost To Treat Distemper In Dogs

The cost to treat distemper in dogs will vary depending on your region, whether or not treatment is performed at an emergency care facility or your primary veterinarian, and the severity of the disease. 

The following are estimates of common diagnostics and treatments that pet parents can expect when their dog has distemper: 

  • Physical exams: $45-$65
  • PCR testing: $100-$250
  • IV fluid therapy: $150-$300
  • Antibiotics: $40-$100
  • Anti-nausea medication: $30-$60
  • Hospitalization (for severe cases): $800-$2,000 per day 
  • Seizure medication: $50-$100

Long-Term Effects of Distemper

Dogs that survive infection with distemper often have long-lasting effects from the disease including hyperkeratosis (thickening) of their nose and foot pads. This is why distemper is commonly known as “hard pad disease.” 

Puppies recovered from CDV infections will typically develop enamel hypoplasia of their adult teeth, a condition that manifests as brown irregular indentations on the teeth and makes dogs more prone to dental issues as they age. 

Dogs that developed neurologic symptoms from CDV but do not die will often have permanent tremors or twitches, which may be debilitating. In some cases, neurological issues may only manifest later in life, often after 6 years of age. 

How To Prevent Distemper In Dogs

Puppy getting vaccinated

While distemper is a very deadly disease, with estimated death rates of 30-50 percent in infected dogs, it is also a highly preventable disease. 

Vaccinating dogs against distemper, isolating infected dogs, and preventing contact with wildlife, are all measures that pet parents can take to prevent distemper infections. 

Distemper Vaccine For Dogs

Vaccination is by far the most effective method of preventing distemper in dogs. Puppies should receive their first distemper shot between 6 and 8 weeks of age. This is usually administered as a combination DHPP vaccine or DAAP vaccine that also prevents against other viruses including parvovirus, hepatitis, adenovirus, and parainfluenza viruses. 

After the initial vaccine, puppies will need to see their vets for booster injections every 3 to 4 weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age. Until that age, puppies can still get infected with the distemper virus. This is why it is important to keep puppies away from dog parks and unvaccinated dogs until they are fully vaccinated. 

Next, a booster shot should be given 1 year later and then again every 3 years for life. 

The distemper vaccine is well tolerated in most dogs and puppies. Normal side effects include soreness at the site of injection and sleepiness lasting 1 to 2 days after vaccination. 

It is very important to let your veterinarian know if your dog has ever had any abnormal side effects after vaccines. 

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