Canine Distemper - All about distemper in dogs

Canine Distemper - All about distemper in dogs

Health & Safety

Canine distemper is a viral infection that affects dogs, and can even be transmitted to other animals such as ferrets and foxes. It is highly contagious between dogs, has no known cure, and sadly, often proves fatal. The good news, however, is that canine distemper can be vaccinated against, and is one of the conditions that is vaccinated against as standard within the UK, as part of the initial puppy shots and annual boosters that all dogs should receive.

All dog and puppy owners should be aware of the risk that canine distemper poses to their dogs, and have a basic understanding of its prevention, transmission, symptoms and treatment. Read on to learn more.

What exactly is canine distemper?

Canine distemper is a virus from the paramyxoviridae family, and is related to the measles virus that affects humans, as well as various other viral strains that affect other animals such as cattle. There are various different strains of the virus, each of which present with slightly different symptoms and indicators. One strain of the virus can lead to a hardening of the tissue on the pads of the paws and sometimes the nose, and so canine distemper is sometimes referred to as ‘hard pad disease.’

The virus is aggressive and pervasive, and can also be carried in the air, meaning that direct contact with an affected dog or equipment that they have been in contact with is not always necessary in order to contract the condition. The virus attacks the lymph nodes in the first instance, such as the tonsils, and then progresses to affect many of the body’s other systems, such as the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory system, and nervous system.

Vaccination and prevention of canine distemper

There is no antidote or cure-all pill for canine distemper, and so most of the research and investigation into the development of the disease within our recent history has concentrated on prevention rather than treatment. Canine distemper is something that is included within the standard board of vaccines that dogs receive when young, and on an annual basis as a booster. Vaccinating your dog is the only realistic way to avoid them contracting the condition, and keeping your dog’s booster shots up to date is vital to ensure that they remain protected throughout their lives. Young dogs and puppies that have neither received their vaccinations nor fully developed their immune systems are at the greatest risk of contracting canine distemper. Special care should be taken of dogs of this age to ensure that they do not come into contact with strange dogs or spend time in areas that other dogs frequent until they have received all of their initial vaccinations.

Causes and transmission

Canine distemper is usually passed from dog to dog by direct contact, or by means of contact with equipment such as bowls, toys and bedding that an infected dog has used. However the virus can also be carried in the air, and not allowing your dog or puppy to come into direct contact with other dogs is not a foolproof way of keeping them from contracting the condition.

Any illnesses or conditions that weaken the immune system, such as bacterial infections or other viral infections raise the likelihood of any dog that is exposed to the virus contracting the condition as well.


The symptoms of canine distemper will vary depending on the strain of the virus present and how advanced the condition is. Some of the important signs of illness to look out for include:

  • A high temperature (above 39.7 degrees Celsius)
  • Redness of the eyes
  • A thin, watery discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Tiredness, lethargy and disinterest in the normal goings on of the household
  • Sudden and pronounced weight loss, and an unwillingness to eat
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea, and general digestive upset
  • A persistent cough
  • Thickening or hardening of the pads of the paws and sometimes the nose, although this hardening does not occur with all cases of distemper
  • During the later stages of the disease, fitting, seizures or paralysis may be present

Diagnosis and treatment

Your vet will usually perform a blood test to definitively identify canine distemper, as well as a urine analysis to check for lymphocytes and antibodies. Samples of the hard skin of the pads, if present, may also be taken, as well as potentially swabs and smears of mucous or the lining of the nose and mouth.

There is no specific cure for canine distemper, and so treatment usually focuses on addressing the symptoms of the condition and alleviating them; for instance, a dog that has lost a significant amount of weight and is not eating may be fed intravenously and given IV fluid therapy.

Palliative care will be given for other symptoms and presentations, and the care and management of canine distemper is considered to be reactive rather than pro-active.

Antibacterial medications and antibiotics may be given if the dog has contracted a bacterial infection alongside of distemper, but there is no antiviral drug or treatment available for the canine distemper virus itself.

Prognosis and long term care

Canine distemper has a high mortality rate among affected dogs, and sadly often proves fatal. That being said, recovery from canine distemper is possible, and many dogs recover fully and go on to have no further problems in later life as a result of contracting and recovering from the condition.

Vaccination goes a long way towards preventing contracting the disease in the first place, and of course, even in unvaccinated dogs and puppies, the sooner that treatment is sought and administered, the greater the chances of ultimate survival are. Once a dog recovers from the virus, they are no longer contagious, and do not pose an ongoing risk to other dogs as the carrier of the condition. In the medium term, a recovered dog may still suffer from some after-affects of the condition, such as seizures or continuing paralysis, for anything up to a few months after recovery from the virus.



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