How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper?

How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper? Is There a Cure?

 How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper?

If you have a dog, you’ve at least heard the word “distemper” and know it’s a bad thing for your dog to have.  But what is it exactly?  How do dogs get canine distemper?  What can we do to prevent it?  How is it treated and is it curable?

How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper?
Photo: Kaelin, Flickr

What is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a serious, highly contagious, viral illness with no known cure.  The virus attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous system.  The disease affects dogs, and certain species of wildlife, such as raccoons, wolves, foxes, mink, and skunks. The common house pet, the ferret, is also a carrier of this virus. Canine distemper is related to the human measles virus.

Young puppies and adolescent dogs who are unvaccinated, as well as non-immunized older dogs tend to be more susceptible to the disease.

Is Canine Distemper Contagious?

Yes!  The virus highly contagious and is spread through the air and by direct or indirect contact with an infected animal.  Direct contact would include contact with fresh urine, blood or saliva.  Indirect contact would be through bedding, bowls, toys, etc.  The most common way it is caught is by breathing in particles secreted by infected dogs.

What are the Symptoms of Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper initially attacks a dog’s tonsils and and replicates itself there for about one week. It then attacks the respiratory, urogenital, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems.

The dog will appear normal and healthy for several days after coming in contact with the virus.  They will then shows symptoms of sneezing, coughing and thick mucus coming from the eyes and nose. The dog will experience high fever (103.5 ° F, or 39.7° C), lethargy, and sudden vomiting.

Over the next couple of days the dog will develop diarrhea, depression and/or loss of appetite, usually leading to anorexia.

After about four weeks, the virus starts attacking the other systems of the dog’s body, particularly the nervous system. The brain and spinal cord are affected and the dog may start having fits, seizures, paralysis, and attacks of hysteria.  The seizures are often so violent that euthanasia is often the most humane thing to do.

In dogs or animals with weak immune systems, death may result two to five weeks after the initial infection.

How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper?
Photo: Anne Marie, Flickr

What Should I Do if my Dog Shows Symptoms?

See vet right immediately!  The virus spreads rapidly and must be aggressively treated as soon as it’s discovered.

How is Canine Distemper Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of this disease is done through biochemical tests and urine analysis.  X-rays may be necessary to determine if the dog has contracted pneumonia.

What Can I do to Prevent Canine Distemper?

The best thing to do is to have your dog properly immunized against this disease.  For a puppy, make sure he gets his first vaccination at six to eight weeks of age. Be sure to keep him away from any possibly infectious dogs or environments until he’s finished with his vaccinations at four or five months old.  Immunization is very effective and especially important if your dog is around other animals.

What is the Cure for Canine Distemper?

At this time, there is no cure for the actual virus that causes Canine Distemper. Treatment consists of controlling the spread of the virus and severity of secondary symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Constant care is needed to make your dog as comfortable as possible.  Intravenous fluids may be given to prevent dehydration and antibiotics to ward off secondary infections while the infected dog builds up his immune response.

Some dogs are able to survive the infection, while for others canine distemper can be fatal.  Dogs who recover from canine distemper may have seizures or other central nervous system disorders that may not show up until many years later, sometimes in their old age. They may also be left with permanent brain and nerve damage, and these symptoms also may not show up until years later.

SOURCES for “How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper“:  Web MD and ASPCA



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Jeanne Melanson

Owner at Animal Bliss
Born in Nova Scotia, I moved to the United States 20+ years ago.I am a dedicated lover of animals and fight for their rights and protection.I love people too, of course, and enjoy meeting folks from all walks of life.I enjoy philosophical discussion, laughing, and really odd ball stuff.I hope you enjoy my site.Leave me a comment to let me know you were here!Peace out.
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42 thoughts on “How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper? Is There a Cure?

  1. Wow, thanks for this post! As a dog owner, I’ve always heard the term ‘distemper’ but I never really knew what it meant. I think vets should have a pamphlet of info like this to give out to new pet owners, or even just a link of resources like this one and others that focus on other diseases. Knowledge is power, and our pets are our family. I gobble knowledge like this up, and I know others would too.
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    • I appreciate your comment, Jennifer. Yes, knowledge is power, and it’s important to know what needs to be done to keep our pet family free from harm and disease. I’m so glad you stopped by today. All the best to you and your dog. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the info! I don’t have dogs now, but we had them when I was a kid. And, yes, I remember our doggie getting distemper. I have a cat now, and she’s just gotten back from some dentistry work from the vet. I love our vet! Thanks again for the great article.
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    • Hey, Patty. I actually didn’t know much about distemper either, until I started researching for this article. Like you say, it was just a shot that your dog needed to get, without question. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post. I appreciate you!

    • You know, I’d never thought about what distemper really was either. I just made sure my dogs were vaccinated on time, like you do. It’s pretty nasty, though, isn’t it? May our dogs never get that sick. Sheesh. Thanks for visiting, Rascal and Rocco. 🙂

    • I know. It makes me sad when I hear some people say they don’t keep up on shots and things because they can’t afford it. I’ve even taken a neighbor’s cat or to into the vet because they couldn’t afford it. You have to take care of your “kids”. That’s all there is to it. Thanks for your comment! I appreciate you.

    • Hello Jana. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Yes it’s so important to keep up with the vaccines. Better to prevent than to try and treat, which is often too late. I appreciate your comment. Take care.

  3. Thank you for sharing this important information with dog owners. Cats can also get distemper. Thankfully I have never known anyone who has had a pet with distemper; it sounds like a very difficult virus for pets to beat.

    • Nice of you to visit my blog, Dr. Anna. Yes, we have to be responsible with our pets to ensure they stay healthy. Thank you for your advice for puppy and kittens. Those vaccinations are critical for their care. Peace!

    • Aww, I’m sorry you lost your hamster so recently. It’s always difficult to lose a pet, no matter what they are. I’ve had all types, and it hurts just as much to lose any one of them. I’m glad you stopped by. I see it’s your first time and I hope it won’t be your last. Peace!

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