What is Canine Distemper?


Canine distemper is a serious disease caused by a highly contagious virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of dogs. The virus also infects foxes, wolves, coyotes, raccoons and other wild animals in the canine family. Juvenile dogs are most prone to infection. Older dogs can also be infected although with much less frequency.

More than 50% of dogs that acquire the disease die from canine distemper. An even lower 20% survival rate is present for puppies. And even if the dog survives the disease, it is very likely that its health will be permanently damaged.

A case of canine distemper leaves the nervous system impaired with little to no hope for total recover. Partial or complete paralysis is common as well as other effects on sense of smell, and hearing and sight acuity. Infected dogs are more prone to other diseases such as pneumonia. The canine distemper virus (CDV) is not transmissible to man.

Canine distemper virus is transmitted most often through getting in contact with mucous and discharges from the infected dogs’ eyes and noses. Exposure to the urine and feces of dogs with this infection can also cause it.

Even without coming in contact with infected dogs, a healthy one can still contract the disease through exposure to kennels and other areas where infected dogs have been in. These areas can still harbor the virus since it is airborne and can stay alive outside a host for long periods of time.

It is almost impossible to prevent your pet from exposure to the virus. Some scientists predict that every dog living for 12 months has had contact with the virus at one point in time. The symptoms of canine distemper are not necessarily easily detected.

And it is because of this that immediate treatment is rarely given. The disease is commonly disguised as something like a bad cold with most of the dogs with the infection running a fever and a stuffy head. Complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and severe inflammation of the stomach and intestines can also develop from the disease.

The virus then affects the nervous system in more advanced stages of the disease, which can cause nervous ticks and twitches as well as partial to complete paralysis. Infected dogs may also display listless behavior and have poor to no appetites. There have been cases when the virus causes sudden growth of the footpad’s tough keratin cells, which results in a hardened pad.

What an owner should be on the lookout for in watching for signs of distemper such as squinting and/or a discharge from the eyes. If this occurs in tandem to loss of weight, vomiting, coughing, nasal drips, and diarrhea, there is more cause for concern.


Canine distemper is so well-spread and the symptoms so varying that if your pet displays any signs such as those mentioned above, a visit to a veterinarian for a diagnosis should be made promptly. Similar to some viral diseases, surviving an infection usually develops the sufficient immunity needed to protect the dog from distemper infection for the rest of their lives. However, lots of dogs (especially pups) do not survive infection.

Vaccination is still the safest and surest protection. And until scientists develop a distemper vaccine that guarantees life-long immunity with a single series of inoculations, veterinarians recommend vaccinations for your dog every year.

Puppies who have been born to dogs that have survived the disease acquire a certain amount of natural immunity from the colostral milk produced by their mother during the first few days after birth. The amount of immunity a puppy acquires differs with the amount of antibodies its mother has. Nevertheless, it is never complete and will diminish quickly to about half by 8 days old and then nearly three-fourths by 2 weeks’ time.

It is impossible for a pet owner to know when his pet should be vaccinated since the proper time for vaccination varies from one animal to the other. The veterinarian can determine the most proper time to begin vaccination basing this decision upon his experience and your dog’s general health.

To maintain and assure this general good health and condition, regular care and close observation of hints of ill health are required. Experts suggest consulting immediately with your veterinarian if your pet shows signs of:

– Abnormal eye and/or nose discharge

– Loss of appetite

– Fluctuating weight losses and gains

– Excessive water consumption

– Abnormal and uncontrolled stool production

– Abnormal viciousness or lethargy

– Abnormal limping

– Difficulty getting up or lying down

– Constant head shaking, scratching, licking or biting of body

– Loss of hair, open sores, ragged or dull coat

– Foul breath

– Excessive tarter deposits on teeth

It is possible that even with these symptoms, CDV infection may not be the case. But it is still better to be sure to bring these concerns to an expert so that the problem can be addressed right away. Even with a disease this serious, you can turn the tide of canine distemper to your pet’s favor with prudence for your pet’s health, taking the correct actions to symptoms observed and being in constant consultation with your vet. 

Please note: This article is part of a collection of dog-related content that we purchased the rights to. Opinions expressed may or may not agree with those espoused by Master Dog Trainer Adam G. Katz. When in doubt, please refer to the advice given in Adam’s dog training book.  This article is provided for your enjoyment, only. It’s relevance to real world working dog training may be limited.