Symptoms of Canine Distemper

The canine distemper virus (CDV) is extremely contagious and is most often spread through direct contact or airborne exposure (for example, through coughing, or sharing food, toys, water bowls, etc.) with infected dogs or other wild animals. However, it can also be spread through contact with the feces of an infected animal. Additionally, a pregnant dog can infect her puppies through the placenta.

canine distemper

CDV is closely related to the measles and rinderpest viruses.

Distemper is often fatal, as it spreads quickly by attacking multiple parts of the body (including the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and central nervous systems), so it is incredibly vital to stay up to date with your dog’s vaccines!

Two Stages of the Virus

Stage One

Usually, when dogs are first infected, they will develop water or pus-like discharge from their eyes. Following close by (usually within three to six days, depending on the severity of the case and how an individual dog reacts to it) may be fever, loss of appetite, and clear nasal discharge. Other early symptoms may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
  • Pustular dermatitis (a rare skin disease)

Secondary Infection

If an infected dog survives the symptoms mentioned above, it may still be at risk of developing a secondary infection that attacks the immune system. The symptoms of a secondary infection may include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Change in respiratory rate

Stage Two

As the virus progresses, some canines experience neurological signs due to an attack of their nervous systems. These symptoms may include:

  • Head tilting
  • Circling
  • Partial or full paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Nystagmus (repetitive eye movements)
  • Muscle twitching
  • “Chewing gum fits” (jaw movements and salivations)

“Hard Pad Disease”

The distemper virus can also cause hardening and thickening of the footpads, which is why it is also known as “Hard Pad Disease” or “Footpad Disease.”


The best way to prevent CDV is by keeping up with your dog’s vaccinations.

All dogs are at risk, but puppies (below four months) and older unvaccinated dogs are at the highest risk of contracting CDV.

Typically, by the age of six to eight weeks, your puppy should receive the first distemper vaccination and then continue with more in a series every three to four weeks until it is four months old (with the last booster being the most important). Then, as they age, dogs receive continued boosters throughout their lifetimes.

The distemper vaccination is a combination vaccine that includes up to five different vaccines, of which canine distemper is the first. The others are adenovirus (a respiratory illness), parvovirus (a gastrointestinal virus), parainfluenza (another respiratory illness), and sometimes leptospirosis (a disease caused by Leptospira bacteria and most commonly transmitted through infected water).

Until a puppy has received a full round of CDV and other vaccinations, it should be kept away from public areas and unvaccinated dogs.

Further, you and your dog (of any age and even if fully vaccinated) should circumvent wildlife that is susceptible to CDV (including foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, mink, ferrets, and large cats) that seem to display stereotypical symptoms of rabies because distemper presents itself a lot like that disease in wild animals. Of course, there’s no way to tell for sure if an animal has rabies or distemper just by looks alone, but an animal with signs of paralysis, seizures, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, excessive salivation, aggression, etc., should be avoided.

Dogs diagnosed with distemper must also be kept away from other animals to avoid further infection. The virus can be shed for several months through exhalations, bodily excretions, and secretions.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you suspect your dog may have distemper or any other illness, bring them to a veterinarian immediately.

Early medical intervention is integral in the survival rate of an animal with CDV.

Two main methods are used to diagnose distemper: biochemical tests (blood tests) and urine analysis. The biochemical tests reveal if there are a reduced number of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cells) in the body; the urine analysis detects the presence of viral antigens (foreign substances which induce an immune response [particularly the production of antibodies] inside of the dog). Together, the methods indicate whether or not an animal is fighting an infection, and if it is, they can predict which one the animal is likely trying to fight off.

Alternatively, or in addition to, vets may also take swabs of a dog’s throat, nose, and eyes and take samples from bone marrow to determine if it is suffering from a viral infection. And spinal fluid samples and biopsies of the footpads may be tested for viral DNA.

A vet may perform these tests in order to rule out other conditions like Rocky Mountain spotted fever (an infectious disease transmitted by ticks), leptospirosis, contagious viral hepatitis, and toxin poisoning.

Every dog reacts to the virus differently, so treatment planning is only set in place once the strain is confirmed, the dog is evaluated, and the current status of the animal is determined. There is no known cure for distemper, so such plans only include supportive care and symptom treatment. The goal is to prevent a secondary infection, as mentioned above, control vomiting, diarrhea, and neurologic systems, and combat dehydration. This support is given in the hope that the dog’s immune system will eventually strengthen enough to fight off the virus.

Treatment methods may include:

  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics
  • Pain relievers
  • Seizure medications
  • Electrolytes
  • IV nutrition
  • Fever reducers
  • Hospitalization
  • Immune system medications
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Steroids

Lasting Impact

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), even if a dog survives distemper, it may still suffer from permanent, irreversible damage to its nervous system.

We Offer Vaccinations to Prevent Canine Distemper

The contraction of CDV is extremely hard—physically on the dog and emotionally on behalf of its loving family—to battle. In order to ensure your beloved pooch is protected, it must be vaccinated in accordance with your veterinarian’s recommendations.

To schedule your dog’s vaccinations, give our animal hospital a call at (301) 994-9919