What is Distemper in Dogs – Early Signs & Symptoms You Should Notice

distemper dogs

What is Distemper in Dogs? – Dog distemper, or also called distemper, is a highly contagious disease that mainly affects dogs when they are puppies, although animals such as foxes and ferrets can also be affected. Cats are safe as they are not affected by this particular type of virus. They can suffer from another type of virus, the feline distemper, which has nothing to do with the canine.

The level of danger of this disease is high, since it can be fatal to dogs . The virus is similar to human measles.

What is Distemper in Dogs


The distemper in dogs , also known as distemper or distemper, a virus that affects dogs primarily and is very similar to measles people. It is the leading cause of death of dogs from infectious disease .

This highly contagious disease affects the respiratory system, the digestive system and the nervous system. The best preventive measure against canine distemper is vaccination .

The infected animals release the virus through body secretions and are usually spread mainly by inhalation.

Since puppies tend not to have yet developed their immune systems, they are the most prone to contagion. For this reason, it is essential to carry out a rigorous vaccination plan against the distemper to both the mother and the puppy to avoid this disease.

The disease is more virulent when the dog is more malnourished or in worse conditions, since its immune system is depressed and they have fewer defenses. Others, however, may have mild symptoms or have no symptoms.

Dog distemper is a highly contagious infectious disease caused by a virus of the genus Morbillivirus. It is widely distributed throughout the world and affects different species of carnivores, apart from the domestic dog; the wolf and the fox.

small dog


The contagion of the canine distemper is easier than it seems. The distemper virus is transmitted by body secretions , such as mucus and tears, which our dogs release into the environment.

Those seemingly harmless little droplets that appear when the dog sneezes or coughs are infected with the virus and are what cause the contagion to occur.

Among dogs that live together it is very difficult to avoid contagion . A person who only has one dog but takes him out for a walk and gets together in the park with other dogs, must be careful and attentive, because many of the infections also occur there.


Oddly enough, the answer is yes . If we maintain contact with dogs infected with distemper, the distemper virus can become impregnated in our clothes , even on our skin and can be carried to another animal, eventually infecting it.

Although it is often difficult for this to happen, it is better to prevent . Washing your hands is a good start, especially if you work or volunteer at a dog center.


Fever is the first symptom to appear, but not the only one. As we have seen before, distemper in dogs affects different parts of the body . Depending on which part affects, the symptoms will be one or the other.


It is the most representative symptom of the canine distemper virus. Dogs begin to runny nose, cough, and produce eye discharge ( conjunctivitis ), usually accompanied by swelling of the eyelids. This means that sometimes they cannot even open their eyes and that the light bothers them.

They have difficulty breathing due to the obstruction caused by mucus. If the virus affects the lung, it can lead to pneumonitis.


If it affects the digestive system, the canine distemper or distemper virus will produce symptoms such as gastroenteritis , with vomiting and / or diarrhea. If this is the only apparent symptom that our dog has, it should not be associated directly with canine distemper, as it may be another disease. In this case, the veterinary diagnosis will be the most appropriate.


It derives in what we know as dermatitis . The skin of the nose and foot pads harden, dry and crack, causing peeling.


The canine distemper, if not treated in time, in its last phase will affect the nervous system. In this case, the common symptoms are sudden attacks, nervous tics, seizures  and muscle spasms that can cause paralysis of some of the extremities.

sick dog2


We must know that distemper in dogs, being a viral infection , does not have a specific treatment. The first thing we have to do if we suspect that our dog may have contracted the virus is to take it urgently to the vet.

The treatment that is carried out is only to alleviate the symptoms and avoid the suffering of our pet. There is no medicine that directly cures distemper , but there are drugs that can help.

  • We can use expectorant drugs or an antibiotic to try to get the dog’s phlegm out and control infections.
  • There are also drugs that help alleviate diarrhea , vomiting and cough , to prevent dehydration, and others against seizures and pain.
  • Food supplements  are very important to strengthen the animal’s health and help strengthen the immune system . The vitamin B , is most recommended for nervous tics of canine distemper.
  • Avoid dehydration of our dog. It is easy for this to happen, our dog feels like nothing and may stop eating and drinking. We must avoid it at all costs and even compel him if he refuses to eat or drink.
  • Hygiene , especially in the area of ​​the eyes and nose, is very important. We must carefully remove the secretions produced by the virus.


There is a vaccine that should be given to all dogs when they are puppies , in fact it is part of the first vaccination , and it is advisable to repeat the dose annually to ensure that our pet is safe from this sometimes deadly malignant virus.

A dog that is not vaccinated has a good chance of catching it just by taking it outside or letting it play with other dogs.

But it is not only advisable to vaccinate the puppy. The mother, before mating, should also be revaccinated with the tetravalent : Distemper (distemper in English), Hepatitis, Parvovirus and Parainfluenza.

In this way, the mother will create antibodies that she will supply to the puppy during lactation.

sick dog1


Vaccinate your pet and prevent it from suffering , as the saying goes, prevention is always better than cure .

The  first  canine distemper vaccine should be  administered at five or six weeks of age and before the puppy reaches our home or lives with other dogs . It is usually included in the trivalent vaccine: distemper, measles and parainfluenza.

Since distemper is a disease similar to measles , it is advisable to vaccinate against this pathology as well.

Some puppies do not respond correctly to the distemper vaccine because of the mother’s antibodies that neutralize it. However, measles infection is capable of defeating antibodies and partially protecting against distemper.

Once the mother’s antibodies are gone, the distemper vaccine will offer complete protection to the pet.

And, as a reminder, it is advisable to carry out the annual vaccination against distemper.


Dog distemper is a serious disease that involves serious complications in the nervous system , leading to seizures, difficulty in moving and the ability to control their limbs.

It is not a curable disease, but it is treatable to alleviate the symptoms and control them.

Fortunately, a dog that has the disease under control will not infect other dogs, since they are no longer hosts of the virus.

Remember that the vet is the best person to advise you in each specific case , and if for whatever reason you think that your pet may be infected, pay him a visit, the best that nobody will know how to help you.

dog health

Does distemper affect all dogs?

Distemper usually affects unvaccinated puppies , between 6 and 12 weeks of age, when the maternal immunity (through milk) loses its effectiveness.

However, it can affect any age, especially in adult animals that are very vulnerable or that are geriatric , that is, animals with weakened defenses (immunosuppressed individuals).

How is distemper spread in dogs?

Dog distemper is spread by inhalation, as an infected animal releases the virus into its secretions (urine, feces, saliva, nasal mucus) and deposits it in the environment. Another dog breathes these particles into the environment and the disease cycle begins.

First, the virus reaches the lymph nodes where it replicates and, later, it is distributed through the blood to reach the rest of the body’s tissues. Whether or not the disease develops will depend on whether the dog’s immune system is able to stand up to the virus and stop its spread.

Symptoms of distemper in dogs

The symptoms of distemper in dogs are highly variable, making it sometimes difficult to confirm the disease. As it is such a general symptomatology, it can be confused with the clinical picture of other diseases, it is advisable to carry out laboratory tests such as a blood test, analysis of exudates and / or detection of antibodies in blood.

List of the most common symptoms of distemper in dogs

  • Fever. It is usually one of the first signs to appear. In this link we teach you how to detect fever in dogs.
  • Lethargy. The dog is listless, listless, weak.
  • Lack of appetite. They stop eating because of the discomfort they feel. They also lose weight.
  • Ocular and nasal discharge. Watery eyes, conjunctivitis, frequent runny nose. If the nasal discharge becomes slimy and / or yellowish, it may be due to a secondary bacterial infection.
  • Cough and shortness of breath.
  • Digestive disorders. A gastroenteritis is generated that proceeds with vomiting and diarrhea .
  • Skin disorders . Ulcerative skin lesions (pustules) may be seen.
  • Thickening of the pads and truffle skin. A very characteristic sign where the truffle and pad epithelium becomes thicker and we observe these enlarged, dry and cracked areas.
  • Nervous symptoms. If the virus reaches the central nervous system, the dog may suffer behavioral changes, seizures, uncoordinated movements (ataxia), walking in circles, involuntary muscle spasms, excessive salivation, tilting of the head, even, paralysis of the extremities.

sick dog 3

Treatment of distemper in dogs

There is no specific therapy but it is a palliative treatment aimed at treating the distemper symptom in dogs.

The main objective is to slow down the progression of symptoms , avoid secondary complications and support the animal’s immune system so that it can cope with the virus.

A veterinary professional will assess how to act correctly and what is the treatment indicated for the condition of each dog.

What is the treatment of Dog distemper?

  1. Hospitalization. Hospitalization is usually recommended for various reasons, the first is to keep the dog under control at all times (since it can decompose quickly) and the second is to keep it isolated from other pets that may become infected.
  2. Hydration. A dog with Dog distemper is usually dehydrated, so the administration of fluids (oral, subcutaneous and / or intravenous) is essential.
  3. Antipyretics . If the fever peaks are very high, their use may be indicated.
  4. Antibiotics. To fight secondary bacterial infections.
  5. Antiemetics . Drugs to control vomiting.
  6. Antidiarrheals. They can be administered to stop the diarrheal picture, if this is not corrected with diet.
  7. Analgesics and anti-inflammatories. If it is considered that the animal has pain and / or suffers inflammation of internal organs.
  8. Oxygen therapy. Obtain oxygen through inhalers, nebulizers and / or an incubator if the respiratory compromise is very marked.
  9. Diet. Administer a special soft diet for your convalescent situation.

How to prevent Dog distemper?

The best way to combat Dog distemper is prevention. As we have mentioned, there is no specific treatment , only a way to alleviate the symptoms if the disease occurs, so the prognosis is often reserved, the treatment does not work and the outcome ends in the death of the dog.

For this reason, it is essential to have an optimal preventive plan throughout the life of our friend , in order to ensure good health of the immune system that copes with any pathogen.

dog looking at the camera

Keeping vaccination up to date is essential to fight the virus

Prevention consists of vaccination , both at the age of puppies and in adulthood, making annual memories.

When applying the vaccine, the dog’s body generates substances, called antibodies, specific to fight the virus.

These antibodies are part of the animal’s immune system and act as follows: if at any time in its life, the distemper virus enters its body, these substances will recognize it as dangerous and will go directly to destroy it.

The first vaccination should be done between 6 and 12 weeks of age and an annual memory is recommended in dogs and adults. It is important to note that the vaccine does not totally eliminate the risk of infection, but it does reduce the probability of suffering from the disease considerably.

Basic tips for living with distemper

Finally, the basic recommendations against distemper in dogs if your friend suffers from the disease:

  1. Offer you  all the comfort possible.
  2. Veterinary care.
  3. Isolation to avoid contagion.
  4. Change your clothes when you contact the other furry ones and also keep them under control, since the symptoms appear a few days after the infection and they may also be incubating the disease.
  5. Attention and love to your partner , now is when he needs you most.

Related tags:

Canine distemper, Infection, Microbiology, Immunology, Epidemiology, Diseases and disorders, Medical specialties, Dog, Health care, Measles, Animal diseases, Immune system, Cough, Animal health, Animals and humans, Signs and symptoms, Mucus, Inflammation, Biology, Organisms, Canine parvovirus, Respiratory droplet, Animals, Gastroenteritis, Dehydration, Conjunctivitis, Physiology, Vomiting, Cat, Fever, Symptoms and signs

Mehul D

I’m Dedhia. I’m a computer science engineer from India who lives in Boston, MA. I love dogs and cats, traveling, watching movies and listening to music. I believe it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well and exercising regularly. I founded the ProactivePetProducts.com website which provides pet owners with information about buying the best products for dogs and cats.