If you’ve brought a new puppy home, you might have already heard about distemper because it’s one of the core vaccinations your vet will suggest for your pup. But what is distemper, what causes distemper in dogs, and can it be treated?
The bad news is that distemper can be deadly, but it is very preventable. Read on to find out more about what distemper is, and how it could affect your furry friend.
Distemper in dogs, or “canine distemper” is a serious and contagious viral disease. The virus attacks a number of different systems in your dog’s body, including the respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, and the neurological system.
It’s one of the most serious diseases your dog can get, and it can be fatal. However, widespread vaccination has meant that cases of distemper in dogs are now uncommon, and vaccinating dogs is important to prevent the spread of the virus and to provide your dog with protection from this potentially deadly disease.
No, humans cannot catch distemper. However, the distemper virus can affect many different mammals other than dogs, including foxes, ferrets, and mink. That means if there is an outbreak of distemper amongst wild animals where you live, any unvaccinated dogs in the area will be at risk of infection.
Distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus, which is a negative-strand RNA virus. These viruses are usually transmitted between dogs via airborne droplets, similar to the flu. The virus that causes distemper in dogs is closely related to the measles virus in humans.
Unlike parvovirus, distemper doesn’t survive for long on surfaces and can be killed off with many household disinfectants. However, distemper can spread in the air just like the flu, due to airborne particles from an infected dog’s breath, coughs, and sneezes.
Usually, distemper in dogs is spread by a pooch coming into direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected dog, such as their mucus or urine. If they share a water bowl or chew another dog’s toy, they could swallow the infected dog’s saliva or mucus and with it the infectious virus.
A dog that has distemper, even if they seem to have recovered from the disease, can continue to shed infectious particles for months and could continue to infect other dogs even once they seem to be better themselves.
If a mother dog is infected with distemper, then her puppies can also contract the virus through the placenta.
Dogs with distemper will go through several stages of infection, each with its own set of symptoms. As the virus affects different areas of your dog’s body, different signs of illness will emerge.
During the first stages of illness, the virus will affect your dog’s respiratory system. Symptoms of distemper in dogs at this point include:
Fever (which can come and go)
“Cold” symptoms (runny nose, sniffles, sneezing)
Pus-like discharge from the eyes
After this point, the virus will begin to affect your dog’s gastrointestinal system. They will develop additional symptoms including:
Within a week or a few weeks of any symptoms of distemper first appearing, the virus will advance to the dog’s nervous system. Signs distemper is beginning to affect your dog’s nervous system include:
Unusual eye movements
Inability to swallow
Sadly in these later stages of distemper in dogs where the neurological system has become affected, your dog can sadly pass away.
Some strains of distemper also cause your dog’s nose and paw pads to grow, thicken, and harden. This is why the virus was also given the nickname “footpad disease” or “hardpad disease”.
Even if your dog survives distemper, they’ll probably take several months to recover and seem more like their usual self. Your pooch might also have “hyperkeratosis” which means a thickened and enlarged nose and paw pads. These abnormalities can remain with your dog for life.
If a puppy was infected with distemper but survived, then their adult teeth might look malformed when they finally grow into your dog’s jaw. This is called “enamel hypoplasia” and it’s a long term side effect of the disease. It means the enamel on your pooch’s tooth failed to form properly while your puppy was growing, and there will be visible defects in the tooth shape and surface. If your dog’s enamel hypoplasia is particularly bad, they may need a lot of dental work to recrown the tooth or even replace it.
For dogs who suffered neurological stages of the disease, it’s likely they’ll have lasting damage to their nervous system. This could mean your dog survives but continues to have tics, tremors, or twitches for months or years after being infected with the virus. If a dog’s neurological damage was severe, they might suffer from ongoing weakness or even partial paralysis, such as loss of movement in their back legs.
If treatment was not given for your dog’s red, inflamed eyes then it may cause continual dry eye or other problems like conjunctivitis later on. In some cases, a dog might need to have their eye removed. The neurological damage your dog suffered from the distemper virus can also attack their optic nerves, so your dog’s vision might be affected too.
If you are introducing a new puppy into your home with an unvaccinated dog, or welcoming home a dog with an uncertain vaccination history, you can keep your dogs separate for a few days quarantine period until it’s clear that they are not infected.
During this time the dogs should be kept at least 6 feet apart, a bit like social distancing, so that they’re out of reach of any coughs or sneezes from one another. Your pooch also shouldn’t share water bowls, food bowls, or toys with other dogs if you aren’t sure they’re vaccinated, as their saliva can spread the disease.
If a dog is known to be infected, they must be isolated from other pets to prevent spreading the disease to other dogs and animals. You should also minimise your dog’s contact with wildlife as wild animals like foxes can be infected with distemper and spread it.
However, the only effective way to prevent distemper is to vaccinate your dog and to maintain their booster vaccinations every year or every 3 years.
If you have pet ferrets, you should also vaccinate them against distemper. Although we call it “canine distemper”, it is the most serious infectious disease amongst ferrets and has a near 100% fatality rate amongst these animals. Plus, your dog could catch distemper from your ferrets, or vice versa.
A few decades ago, a distemper outbreak in a town could decimate the doggy population. Nowadays, distemper is much rarer due to the prevalence of vaccination in dogs.
Distemper vaccines for dogs are highly effective and minimise your dog’s risk of developing the disease if they’re infected with the virus. Being vaccinated also significantly reduces your dog’s risk of serious illness and death by distemper. A vaccinated dog is also much less likely to spread distemper, even if they are infected.
These vaccines work immediately in providing some level of immunity, so your puppy will have some level of protection from their first jab. However to develop their full immunity and maintain it, they will need to complete all their puppy jabs and have regular booster vaccinations as an adult.
The vaccines are very safe too, and most dogs will have no side effects at all. Some pooches might be a bit sore for a day or two where they had their jab, and might have a little lump where the needle went in, but this usually goes away on its own after a few days.
More rarely, your dog might seem a little sleepy or lethargic for a day or two after their vaccine. They might also have less of an appetite compared to normal, but again, this usually only lasts a day or so.
Some dogs can have an allergic reaction to the vaccine, but it is incredibly rare and affects fewer than 1 in 10,000 dogs. Allergic reactions can be reversed with prompt treatment from your vet.
The decision to vaccinate your dog is there for you to make, but your vet will encourage you to vaccinate your dog. This is because diseases like distemper, parvovirus and leptospirosis are very easy to prevent with a simple jab.
If your unvaccinated dog catches these diseases, there is a risk that they will die, and even if they survive, there is the chance they could suffer from long-lasting side-effects that impact their health and wellbeing for the rest of their life.
Choosing to vaccinate your dog will also mean other dogs in your area are kept safe, as there are fewer dogs in the local population who can be infected and spread this deadly disease.
Diagnosing distemper can be difficult, particularly in the early stages, as the symptoms are often mild and can be mistaken for other illnesses. Plus, symptoms of distemper can come and go. Your vet will likely begin treatment based on your dog’s symptoms and chronology of the infection according to the signs of illness you have observed in your pooch. Your vet might also conduct a PCR test and examine a sample of your dog’s blood to see if there are any distemper virus cells in their blood.
Sadly, there is no cure or specific treatment for distemper in dogs, which is why prevention is so important. Your dog will be hospitalised for a few days so your vet can treat your dog’s symptoms and provide supportive care to give your pooch the best chance of survival. Otherwise, it’s a stressful waiting game to see if your dog can outlast the virus.
One of the first things your vet will do will be to provide an IV drip for your dog, which will provide intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and deliver medicines directly into their body. They might also provide electrolytes to keep your dog’s energy up.
Because distemper in dogs begins by affecting their respiratory system, some dogs can develop pneumonia. Your vet will prescribe antibiotics to penetrate the lung tissue and treat the infection. Your dog may also need to use a nebuliser, which provides a mist of medicine for your dog to breath in so that the medicine can travel deep into their lungs.
Since distemper also reduces your dog’s immune system, they are much more likely to develop secondary infections. Antibiotics will help to prevent and treat any other illnesses they might develop. In some rare cases, dogs can develop skin irritation and lesions when they are infected with distemper, and antibiotics will usually help to clear this up too, as well as regular baths with oatmeal shampoo or medicated shampoo.
If your dog is due to have any operations, teeth cleaning, or any procedure involving anaesthetic this will be delayed because the anaesthetic can worsen their condition.
Because distemper also affects your dog’s gastrointestinal system, your pooch will be given medication to prevent nausea and vomiting. Since your pup’s eyes are also affected by the virus and often become dry and leak discharge, they will need artificial tears to keep the eye lubricated and to prevent any damage.
If your dog is showing signs of neurological damage and has been suffering from seizures, they will be given medication to prevent these from happening.
Sadly some cases of distemper in dogs are severe and the pup will have little chance of survival. And when a dog is suffering severe neurological damage and pain, with a poor outlook, then your vet may discuss the need to consider euthanasia.
A dog’s chances of survival and the rate at which they recover will vary depending on how fit and healthy your dog was, and what strain of the virus they contracted.
Some dogs can become ill and only suffer from the more mild, early stages of the disease, and with prompt treatment they might recover in as little as 10 days.
More often than not, dogs take much longer to recover. Even after they have been discharged from animal hospital, it can take weeks or even months before they are back to their usual self.
Many dogs with distemper will have lasting side effects though, and they might suffer from episodes of illness or flare-ups of symptoms throughout their life. Many dogs will have tics or tremors for months after infection, if not for life. If your dog suffers from chronic illness or neurological issues after distemper, your vet might prescribe ongoing medication to treat their symptoms, such as seizure medication, steroids, or anti-inflammatories.
Sadly, distemper in dogs can often be fatal. Puppies that contract the virus are much less likely to survive. Whereas healthy adult dogs have a better chance of recovery, it is still fatal in about half of all cases.
Dogs that receive supportive care from the vet during the early stages of the disease are also much more likely to survive. Provided your dog receives treatment before developing any neurological signs of illness, they have a good chance of survival, although it may take months before they appear recovered and back to normal.
However, as soon as the virus progresses far enough that it affects your dog’s nervous system, their chances of survival are significantly smaller. Plus, if they do recover, there is the possibility that they will have lasting neurological issues such as tics or tremors.
If your dog is vaccinated, they are unlikely to develop the disease if they come into contact with the virus, and if they do, they have much less chance of developing serious illness and are much more likely to survive and make a full recovery.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.