Image of dog sick from distemper

Key takeaway

Distemper is a contagious viral disease that affects dogs as well as certain wild animals. The disease can spread through sneezing and coughing. Dogs with distemper may show symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and coughing. Since distemper in dogs is incurable, treatment involves IV fluids and other treatments that can help reduce symptoms and relieve pain.

Distemper in dogs is a contagious viral disease that can spread from an infected dog (or another animal) to a susceptible dog. Like many other viral infections, distemper can spread through sneezing and coughing, In some cases, canine distemper comes from wild animals such as ferrets, skunks, and raccoons.1

A dog with distemper may exhibit several symptoms that indicate there’s something wrong, including vomiting and diarrhea. However, these symptoms may also present with several other medical conditions, so it’s hard to diagnose distemper on your own. Instead, it’s important to take your dog to the vet if you notice they’re exhibiting signs of canine distemper.

While treatment for distemper varies a bit depending on the severity of the condition, the main goal is to manage symptoms. Talking to your vet to get a diagnosis and figure out a treatment plan is an important step to take if your dog has symptoms of distemper. If you want to know more about distemper in dogs and what you can do to treat it, here’s what you need to know.

Symptoms Of Distemper In Dogs

As a pet parent, you should know the symptoms of distemper so you can keep an eye out for distemper in your dog. This can be difficult because dogs who are living with distemper may exhibit lots of different symptoms.

The symptoms of distemper occur in two stages. During the first stage of distemper, the condition isn’t quite as severe and the symptoms are fairly minor. As distemper progresses, it will eventually lead to more severe symptoms that come with stage two. Eventually, distemper can lead to death depending on your dog’s age and whether the virus affects the nervous system.

Here are some of the symptoms during stage one of distemper in dogs2:

  • Fever
  • Eye and nasal discharge
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Pustular dermatitis
  • Brain and spinal cord inflammation

Graphic listing symptoms of distemper

Once distemper progresses to stage two, you may notice some of the following symptoms:

  • Tilting of the head
  • Circling
  • Partial or full paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Nystagmus (repetitive eye movements)
  • Muscle twitching
  • Convulsions along with increased salivation and chewing motions

You may notice your dog coughing or expelling a clear discharge from their eyes or nose during the early stages of distemper. If you notice the symptoms of early-stage distemper, you should take your dog to the vet for a checkup.

Graphic listing causes of distemper

What Causes Distemper In Dogs?

Understanding what causes distemper in dogs can help you prevent distemper and keep your dog healthy. The most important thing to understand is that distemper is a contagious viral disease, which means it can be passed on to your dog from an infected dog or wild animal.

Like many viral diseases, distemper in dogs is typically transmitted via some sort of bodily fluid. Bodily fluids that can transmit urine, blood, saliva, and respiratory droplets. However, it’s most common for a dog to get distemper from respiratory droplets, which spread from animal to animal through coughing and sneezing. This is why it’s so important to keep your dog away from wild animals and dogs who may have distemper.

If you have several dogs, you also run the risk of one dog transmitting distemper to your other dogs. Because distemper can spread through bodily fluids including respiratory droplets, it’s not uncommon for dogs to spread distemper as a result of sharing a food or water bowl.

Diagnosis 

Getting a professional diagnosis is an important first step when it comes to treating distemper in dogs. This is particularly important because canine distemper can be mistaken for other conditions such as leptospirosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. When you take your dog to the vet for distemper, you should also make sure you talk to your vet about symptoms your dog may be exhibiting, including things like anorexia and vomiting.

In order to diagnose distemper in dogs, vets use either immunofluorescent assay or reverse transcriptase (RT) PCR to examine samples from various parts of your dog’s body. This testing allows your vet to determine whether or not your dog has distemper, plus it can differentiate between vaccinal distemper and wild distemper.

One thing that makes it difficult to diagnose distemper is the fact that the signs and symptoms can vary and mimic other medical conditions. If you’re not sure what’s going on with your dog but you think they may have distemper, going to the vet is your best bet.

Graphic listing treatment approaches to distemper in dogs

How Is Distemper Treated?

When it comes to treating canine distemper, the goal of treatment is to provide supportive care that helps your dog fight off infections, maintain enough fluids, and manage the symptoms that come with distemper. Unfortunately, there is no cure for canine distemper, so treatment is mostly focused on improving quality of life.

Some of the treatment options your vet may recommend for canine distemper include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Electrolyte solutions
  • Nursing care
  • Analgesics 
  • Anticonvulsants

Because you can’t actually cure distemper and this disease is eventually fatal to dogs, you should talk to your vet about what you can do to make sure your dog is comfortable. Your vet can help you come up with a treatment plan that works for you. Make sure you stick to any advice your vet offers and ask questions before trying any new treatment.

Distemper being incurable also means that it’s important to diagnose this disease as early as possible. Early diagnosis allows your dog to get the treatment they need before their distemper gets worse, which helps improve their quality of life. It’s also important to get an early diagnosis so you can keep your dog away from other dogs who may be susceptible to distemper.

Ultimately, the best treatment for distemper is prevention. Vaccinating your pet against distemper can be an extremely effective way to do this. To learn more about distemper prevention and vaccines, talk with your vet.

Sick dog being examined by vet

Distemper: Frequently Asked Questions

Can a dog recover from distemper?

While distemper isn’t something you can cure with medication, plenty of dogs are able to recover from distemper to some degree. It’s important to note that the rate of recovery (and whether your dog is able to recover at all) depends on the health of your dog and their medical history. Dogs who are battling other chronic diseases, as well as distemper, may have a harder time recovering from distemper.

Is distemper contagious to humans?

The good news about distemper is that you don’t have to worry about it spreading to you. Like many other diseases that are common in dogs, distemper isn’t contagious to humans, so you don’t have to worry about spending lots of time around your sick dog. In fact, your vet may even recommend spending more time with your dog so you can monitor their condition and keep them in good spirits.

That being said, distemper is contagious to dogs as well as several wild animals, so you should keep your dog away from other animals if they have distemper.

How long do dogs live with distemper?

Distemper is different depending on how healthy your dog is, so different dogs have very different experiences. Dogs who have a weak immune system may have a harder time fighting off distemper, and the same may be true for older dogs. However, a young, healthy dog with no chronic illness has a much better chance of getting rid of their distemper sooner. If you want to know more about how long your dog can live with distemper, talk to your vet when you take your dog to get diagnosed.

Sick dog resting in bed

Final Notes

Canine distemper may not be the most common condition in dogs, but it can be a serious problem. Distemper in dogs is typically spread through respiratory droplets, but it can also be spread through blood and urine. If your dog has distemper, it’s important to keep them away from other dogs and make sure they’re not sharing food bowls with other dogs.

If your dog is lethargic and you’re looking for a vet who can help, Dutch is the simple solution. Dutch can connect you with an online vet in your area, so you can make your vet appointment without leaving your home. If your vet prescribes medication, Dutch can work with pharmacies to have that medication sent to your doorstep. When you want quality pet care that’s simple, you need Dutch.

References

  1. Creevy, Kate E. “Canine Distemper Overview - Generalized Conditions.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 17 Feb. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/generalized-conditions/canine-distemper/canine-distemper-overview?query=distemper

  2. Burke, Anna. “Distemper in Dogs - Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 27 May 2021, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/distemper-in-dogs/

  3. “Canine Distemper.” American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/petcare/canine-distemper