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The Facts on Canine Distemper

What You Need to Know About This Life-Threatening Disease

By Meredith Alling. November 14, 2013 | See Comments

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Canine distemper is one of those diseases that is highly contagious and can be picked up very easily from other dogs at the park, kennel, or even at the groomer. Luckily, this potentially fatal and hard to treat disease is 100% preventable.

Canine distemper is a very contagious, difficult to treat, and often fatal disease that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems of dogs. While the disease is much less common than it used to be -- due to the effectiveness of vaccinations -- many dogs still fall victim, and it remains one of the leading causes of infectious-disease-related deaths in dogs worldwide.

Canine Distemper Causes

Canine distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV). CDV is passed from one dog to another through contact with blood, urine, or saliva. The virus can be transmitted via coughing, sneezing, and the sharing of food and water bowls.

Puppies and adolescent dogs who have not been vaccinated against distemper are the most likely to contract it, unvaccinated puppies between the ages of 6 and 12 months being at the highest risk.

Canine Distemper Symptoms

Canine distemper can sometimes be difficult to identify, as many dogs show mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. A dog’s overall health usually has an impact on how sick they become, with dogs already in poor health tending to fare worse. If your dog does show symptoms, they will typically appear 6 to 9 days after exposure to the virus, and include:

Contact your veterinarian at the first sign that something is wrong, as canine distemper progresses rapidly and must be treated immediately.

Canine Distemper Treatment

There is no medication that can destroy the canine distemper virus -- 50 percent of affected adult dogs and 80 percent of affected puppies will succumb to the disease.

Your dog’s chances of survival will ultimately depend upon a few factors:

  • The particular strain of the virus
  • Whether or not the dog has been vaccinated
  • Their age
  • Their immune response
  • How quickly treatment is sought

Many dogs with distemper receive treatments to prevent secondary medical issues that can occur as the result of the virus. These treatments include:

  • Intravenous fluids and nutrients to stave off dehydration
  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections
  • Medications to relieve vomiting and diarrhea
  • Anticonvulsants and sedatives to control seizures
  • Glucocorticoid therapy to prevent blindness

Even dogs who survive canine distemper often end up having lasting health problems, including seizures or other central nervous system disorders, brain and nerve damage, enamel hypoplasia (a lack of tooth enamel), and hyperkeratosis, which is an uncomfortable hardening of the nose and foot pads.

Canine Distemper Prevention

The canine distemper vaccine is highly effective -- nearly 100 percent. Puppies should receive their first vaccination at 6 to 8 weeks of age, and additional shots should be given every 3 to 4 weeks until the puppy is 4 or 5 months old. Keep your puppy away from potentially infected dogs or environments until the course of vaccinations is complete.

More on Preventative Health Care

Checklist for Kenneling a Dog
Reasonable Pet Vaccination Costs
All About Vaccinating Your Dog

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Canine Distemper at a glance

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  • 1Canine distemper is a highly contagious and often fatal disease
  • 2Distemper is transmitted through blood, urine, or saliva
  • 3Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, thick mucus, fever, and more
  • 4The canine distemper vaccination is almost 100 perfect effective, and all dogs should be vaccinated