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What is Canine and Feline Distemper and How to Treat It

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Distemper is a viral disease that affects the epithelial and nervous system. In this article, we'll tell you how to fight it.
What is Canine and Feline Distemper and How to Treat It
Last update: 27 May, 2021

Canine and feline distemper is a viral disease that can affect dogs, cats, and even ferrets. As owners, it’s very important to be aware of our pet’s need for vaccination to prevent diseases like this. Dogs, and especially puppies and senior dogs, are the animals most susceptible to contracting this pathology.

Canine distemper can be very serious and, in the case of ferrets, it will most likely become fatal. Preventing this disease is so important that your vet will give your pet a vaccine against it as a first precaution when visiting the clinic.

What causes canine and feline distemper and how is it spread?

Distemper is caused by the canine distemper virus, which belongs to the family of the measles virus in humans. It’s mainly spread by contact with infected material, body fluids from infected animals, or by airborne contact.

This virus can be found in nasal secretions and tears that spread as a droplet spray, similar to the flu in humans. Infected dogs can spread the virus for several months.

It spreads very quickly between dogs in kennels and in places where many dogs may congregate, such as parks. This virus’s incubation period ranges from 14 to 18 days depending on the strain. Thus, it can be more or less virulent, with different prognosis, symptoms, and evolution.

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Canine distemper symptoms in dogs and cats

Depending on the animal’s immune status, symptoms may start to appear in the first few days or until the severity is high. The virus targets the epithelial organs as well as the nervous system. As a result, it can produce a wide variety of different symptoms:

  • Fever – commonly above 102 °F
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Apathy and lack of appetite
  • Cough and respiratory distress or dyspnea – there can be secondary infections due to Bordetella, which can give the animal pneumonia
  • Nasal discharge with a watery consistency at the beginning, but can become mucopurulent
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Ataxia  – in this case, the virus has affected the brain with the appearance of uncontrolled contractions of various muscles of the body
  • Convulsions
  • Encephalitis – Irritation and inflammation of the brain

The symptom spectrum is very broad and can coincide with many other diseases. For example, hyperkeratosis in the animal’s paw pads. Although not a very worrying symptom, it’s still very characteristic of canine and feline distemper. It’s mainly an atypical thickening of the pads. In addition, neurological symptoms can sometimes appear in a delayed manner a week to a few months after an initial recovery.

Prevention is the best weapon against distemper

Experts recommend giving dogs a distemper vaccine shot from 6 weeks old, and cats at eight weeks old. This vaccine provides protection against more diseases such as parvovirus. However, several doses of revaccination are necessary for the animal to acquire immunity, in addition to an annual booster dose throughout its life.

Animals not re-vaccinated can lose immunity and become infected in periods of stress or immunosuppression, both with distemper and other diseases that require booster doses.

Puppies acquire their first distemper immunity through colostrum and can last up to eight weeks. Bottle-fed puppies or cats have immunity (they get it from their mother) until the first or fourth week of life.

Are there any treatments to cure distemper?

A veterinarian can confirm canine and feline distemper by checking the pet’s symptoms and with a blood test. The mortality rate is around 50% to 90%, depending on the potency of the strain.

Although there’s no specific treatment for distemper, the veterinarian will provide support with fluid therapy and symptomatic treatment. The doctor may also prescribe antibiotics to avoid secondary infections. In addition, they’ll also recommend washing any secretions in your pet’s eyes and nose daily.

If the veterinarian’s diagnosis confirms the disease, it’ll be vital to keep the animal under control in the clinic. The pet will also most likely require hospitalization until stabilized. Once the disease has been controlled, you must be patient and regularly visit your vet.

If you have more animals at home, you should isolate the sick animal, increase hygiene measures, and wash clothes and hands before touching other pets. If the animal recovers from distemper but its nervous system has been affected, there may be permanent consequences. In this case, the animal may have episodes of seizures or ataxia sporadically.

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Canine and feline distemper, like other widespread diseases in dogs and cats, can easily be prevented by complying with the vaccination schedule recommended by the veterinarian. With these vaccines, we can reduce the probabilities of our pets contracting this dangerous disease to practically zero.


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Merck & CO., INC. El manual Merk de veterinaria. Barcelona, Océano Grupo Editorial, 2000.
  • Fidalgo, L. E., Rejas, J., Ruiz de Dopegui, R., Ramos, J. J.Patología Médica Veterinaria. Salamanca, Kadmos, 2003.
  • Zoetis. El moquillo canino.
  • Portalveterinaria. Moquillo canino neurológico, 2018.
  • Affinity petcare. Moquillo canino.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.