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Canine Distemper: What Is It & How To Cure It

Written by Ella White


black and brown dog lying on carpet looking sad

Distemper is a virus that can be found in many species of wildlife, including wolves, foxes, ferrets, skunks, wild cats, and racoons. Canine distemper is severe and highly contagious, but can also easily be prevented.

In this blog, we’ll cover everything dog owners need to know about distemper, what it is, the symptoms to look out for, and how to cure and prevent it.

What Is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a potentially fatal disease that attacks the respiratory system, nervous system, and gastrointestinal system of dogs and puppies. The virus itself is similar to measles, and causes a widespread infection that attacks multiple systems within the dog’s body.

Because it’s highly contagious and difficult to treat once contracted, distemper vaccines are one of the main vaccinations puppies and dogs are required to be up to date with.

How Do Dogs Get Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is usually spread in one of three ways:

  • Direct content with another infected animal
  • Exposure to the airborne disease
  • Via the placenta, for newborn puppies

Because many species can contract distemper, dogs that come into contact with wildlife, as well as other unvaccinated dogs, are at risk of contracted distemper from infected animals.

Infected dogs can also spread it through sneezing, coughing, and barking – in much the same way as humans spread colds. The infection can contaminate surfaces, food, and water, and can be breathed in by other dogs nearby. This cause of infection can last for several months, but don't live for long on surfaces and can be easily killed by using disinfectants.

Pregnant dogs with distemper can also pass the virus on to their puppies through the placenta, so breeders must ensure their dogs are fully vaccinated (and be happy to show proof of this to anyone buying a puppy).

What Are The Symptoms Of Canine Distemper?

The symptoms of canine distemper can change as the virus advances. So there are different stages of symptoms to look out for in infected dogs.

The first signs to appear within 3 to 6 days are:

  • Discharge from the eyes that may be watery or pus-like
  • Clear discharge from the nose
  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite leading to rapid weight loss
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Coughing 
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Inflamed brain and spinal cord
  • In rare cases, pustular dermatitis
  • Sometimes, hardened paw pads due to hyperkeratosis

Dogs can also develop a secondary bacterial infection. This attacks the dog’s immune system and can usually be identified by respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms. These secondary symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Change in breathing 
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Pneumonia

Once the virus has begun to attack the nervous system, owners might notice neurological symptoms including:

  • A tilted head
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Circling
  • Repetitive eye movements
  • Muscle twitches
  • Convulsions 
  • Increased salivation and chewing

Once the disease has fully developed, it can result in death and will often cause permanent damage to the nervous system.

Is My Dog At Risk Of Canine Distemper?

All dogs are at risk of canine distemper, which is why the distemper vaccination is one of the core doses administered to puppies. 

Puppies under four months and dogs who have not been vaccinated are most at risk. And if there is an outbreak of distemper in local wildlife populations – most commonly raccoons – owners are advised to take caution when walking their dogs. 

If you think your puppy or dog has contracted distemper or is showing any of the symptoms listed above, seek medical attention immediately.

Treating Canine Distemper

The bad news is: there is no cure for distemper in dogs. What vets can do is diagnose the disease and treat each of the symptoms as a supportive measure. But once a dog is infected with distemper, they should be separated from other dogs and animals.

If your dog contracts a weak strain of distemper or has a strong immune system that can effectively fight severe infection, they could be better in as little as 10 days. However, in severe cases, some dogs may die of distemper and others can exhibit symptoms and lasting effects for months after infection.

How To Prevent Canine Distemper

Though serious, contagious, and potentially deadly, canine distemper is a very easy disease to prevent. Steps dog owners can take to prevent infection include:

  • Making sure puppies and dogs are fully up to date on their vaccinations
  • Making sure other pets, like ferrets are up to date on their distemper vaccinations
  • Keeping dogs away from potentially infected wildlife like skunks and foxes
  • Don’t let unvaccinated dogs socialize in areas with high dog or wildlife populations

One of the best ways to keep any dog as healthy as possible is through their diet. Front of the Pack’s air dried food is made with 100% pure and natural ingredients that you’ve probably tried yourself. It’s vet-approved and designed to give dogs all the minerals and vitamins they need in one easy serving.

With a healthy and natural diet packed with meat and vegetable proteins, your dog will be better equipped to fight illnesses thanks to a strengthened immune system. That’s why we air-dry our food low and slow: to lock in 99% of the goodness they should be getting from their whole food diet.