Distemper in Dogs

Distemper in Dogs
Francisco María García

Written and verified by the lawyer Francisco María García.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Distemper in dogs is one of the most common health issues among pets. Although it’s not transmitted to humans, there is a high risk of infection among dogs, and a high mortality rate as well.

Propagation of the distemper pathogen is related to the abandonment of animals in unhealthy environments. Overpopulation makes puppies born on the streets especially vulnerable. The puppies can acquire and transmit this disease easily.

Therefore, when you rescue a dog, you will need to make sure his vaccinations are up-to-date and deworm him. Keeping his immune system strong is the most effective way to keep him healthy.

What is Distemper in Dogs?

Distemper in dogs in an infectious, viral, acute disease that affects the digestive and respiratory tracts. In more severe cases, it affects neurons, as well as the central nervous system.

Cocker Spaniel puppy sitting in a box: distemper in dogs.

This disease is caused by a virus that belongs to the Paramyxoviridae family, of the Morbillivirus genus, and is similar to the one that causes measles in humans . It’s remarkably resistant and manages to survive in hostile conditions while encapsulating itself for an extended period of time before it resumes its activity.

Because of its resistance, it has spread all over the world, concerning vets everywhere. Dogs of all ages, breeds and sizes can be infected with distemper, but it’s more common in puppies. 

How Distemper Can Affect Different Dogs

A puppy’s body is more vulnerable to infection because their immune system is still developing. Therefore they’re not prepared to cope with the numerous microorganisms found in the external atmosphere. In addition, the intense cellular activity that occurs in the growth phase facilitates the replication of the virus.

In addition, old and/or immunosuppressed dogs are also more vulnerable to distemper and other infections. Here, the symptoms tend to be more serious and their health declines rapidly.

Paramyxovirus commonly affects other wild canines, as well. This is the case with wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes and dingoes (“Australian wild dogs”). Less commonly, it affects otters, weasels and raccoons. 

High Mortality Rates

Distemper in dogs has caused great alarm due to its high mortality rate and rapid progression.  Typically, around 90% of dogs that get distemper die from it. In addition, animals that do survive are likely to suffer severe sequelae in their nervous system.

Symptoms of Distemper in Dogs

The incubation phase of distemper virus usually lasts between 12 and 20 days. Normally, the first symptom of distemper in dogs is secretions around their eyes and snout.

As the disease progresses, the following symptoms may appear:

  • Tiredness, lethargy, or excessive sleepiness.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Thickening of the dog’s paw pads.
  • Difficulty breathing or heavy breathing.

Subsequently, the infected dog may also begin to suffer from malnutrition, dehydration and anorexia. In its most severe stage, the distemper virus reaches the nervous system, causing spasms, convulsions and paralysis.

Contagion of Distemper in Dogs

Transmission of distemper is direct; the virus is most commonly transmitted through the air. In other words, the dog breathes or ingests the pathogens in the air.

Contagion of distemper can also occur through water and food that has been infected by the virus. Hence the importance of not sharing your pet’s bowls with strange dogs. Each animal must have its own environment, food bowl, and water bowl.

Is There a Treatment for Distemper in Dogs?

There is no specific drug to eliminate Paramyxovirus from a dog’s body. Viral infections are usually much more complicated to treat than bacterial or fungal infections.

People holding and petting a puppy
Source: Hugo A. Quintero G.

Typical treatment for distemper in dogs involves strengthening the immune system, relieving symptoms and preventing secondary infections.

Early diagnosis is key to increasing the dog’s chance of healing and recovery. Therefore, it’s essential to see a veterinarian immediately if you notice changes in your pet’s body or behavior.

How to Prevent Distemper in Dogs

Responsible ownership is vital to prevent distemper in dogs. Respecting your dog’s vaccination calendar and carrying out periodic deworming treatments are indispensable preventive measures for keeping your pet healthy. A balanced diet and plenty of physical activity are important for all living beings.

The contents of My Animals are written for informational purposes. They can't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.