Guide to Distemper Virus in Dogs

Distemper virus is one of the most severe disease-causing viruses in dogs. Luckily, it is also one of the most preventable. We give you details about the nature of the distemper virus in dogs, the causes and transmission ways and factors, prevention and treatment, and everything else you need to know to keep your dog safe.

What is Distemper Virus?

Distemper virus is an RNA virus of the paramyxovirus family that causes canine distemper. It is highly contagious and presents as an acute feverish disease. The virus also infects in other domestic and wild animals like cats, ferrets, foxes, wolves, raccoons, minks, skunks, bears, tigers, and leopards. 

A microscopic view of distemper virus
Photo Credit: vetderex

According to the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), the first case of canine distemper was recorded in 1760. Since then, the disease has largely been controlled even though it has a worldwide distribution, and outbreaks among wildlife and dogs are sometimes reported. 

Distemper Virus Transmission

Canine distemper is highly contagious and can be spread from dog to dog or from other infected animals to dogs through one of these 3 ways:

Inhaling Aerosol Particles with the Virus

Infected aerosol particles get to the air when an infected dog or animal sneezes, coughs, or barks. In this case, the virus-infected droplets are released into the environment or settle on surfaces, feeding tools, or animal or human bodies close to the infected dog. Healthy dogs can then inhale the particles from these places.

Contact with Infected body Excretions

A healthy dog can get infected with the distemper virus by coming into contact with the virus through an infected dog’s feces, urine, saliva, and respiratory secretions. This is why immediate isolation of infected dogs is advised.

From Mother to Puppy though the Placenta

A pregnant dog infected with the distemper virus can pass it to her unborn puppies through the placenta. This mode of distemper virus transmission underlines the need to faithfully follow up your dog’s distemper virus vaccination schedule if you plan to breed.

Below are other facts about distemper virus transmission that you should know about:

  • Freezing temperatures preserve the distemper virus, making it survive longer on surfaces or in the environment.
  • While canine distemper cases can occur any time of the year, more cases are reported in winter and fall when temperatures are lower.
  • Recovered dogs and animals can still shed the virus for at least 2 weeks after their recovery. 

Note that the canine distemper virus is an animal disease and is not transmissible to humans.

Distemper Virus Incubation Period

When a dog is infected with the distemper virus, the viral infection spreads first to the lymphatic tissues of the respiratory system. The infection then extends to the lymphatic tissues of the gastrointestinal tract, the urogenital epithelium, the optic nerves, and eventually to the nervous system. 

The incubation period is around 7-14 days from the time of exposure. However, clinical signs may appear earlier or later depending on the severity of the infection and your dog’s immunity. 

This means that if your dog has been exposed to other dogs or other animals infected with canine distemper, it should be quarantined for at least one month. This period is enough time to notice any presenting symptoms.

Distemper Virus Symptoms

The symptoms of the distemper virus will begin to present a few days after infection or later. The extent and severity of the symptoms will depend on the stage of the disease.

A dog suffering from distemper virus
Photo Credit: thebageerafoundation

Stage 1 Distemper Virus Symptoms

Stage 1 distemper virus symptoms may begin to show as early as 3 to 6 days following infection. These symptoms include: 

  • Fever
  • Eye inflammation and discharge
  • Nasal discharge
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath) 
  • Coughing
  • Pustular dermatitis (pus-filled blisters/pimples) in some cases
  • Anorexia (decreased appetite)
  • General weakness
  • Brain and spinal cord inflammation

Stage 2 Distemper Symptoms

In the second stage, after day 6 or later, the distemper virus has progressed to the central nervous system and will present in severe neurological symptoms:

  • Circling
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions accompanied by chewing motions and continuous salivation 
  • Repetitive eye movements (Nystagmus)
  • Head tilt
  • Muscle twitching
  • Body weakness
  • Neck pain and rigidity
  • Full or partial paralysis
  • Death

Your sick dog may present all or some of stage 1 and 2 distemper virus symptoms simultaneously. 

Secondary Distemper Virus Symptoms/Illnesses

Canine distemper virus often comes with secondary symptoms and illnesses. This comorbidity happens because the virus affects most of your dog’s body systems. These symptoms include:

  • Secondary bacterial infections due to a compromised immune system.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Thickening of the nose and footpads (hyperkeratosis).
  • Rabies-like symptoms

These secondary symptoms can confuse the dog owner, which is why a professional veterinarian should diagnose any dog sicknesses.

Canine Distemper Diagnosis

Dog owners can tell if their dog has canine distemper if it has all or most of the symptoms indicated earlier. But manifesting multiple symptoms could equally be confusing for dog owners, who may then fail to recognize distemper virus infection in their dog. Also, the manifestation of canine distemper virus symptoms may be delayed and not appear right away.

A dog undergoing treatment in a clinic

A professional veterinarian is best suited in diagnosing canine distemper. The vet can use one or both of these ways to determine if your dog has canine distemper:

  1. Assess the clinical appearance of the disease in its respiratory, ocular, GI, dermatological, neurological, and behavioral symptoms to make out if the dog is infected with the distemper virus. Assessment may also involve testing the dog for other diseases with similar symptoms, including:
    • Leptospirosis (a bacterial infection spread through the urine).
    • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (a bacterial infection spread through ticks).
    • Viral hepatitis (an infection of the liver).
    • Toxin poisoning.
  2.  Laboratory testing of:
    • Ocular, nasal, or throat swabs.
    • Tissue samples from the lungs, foot pads, and bladder.
    • Samples from urine or bone marrow. 
    • Spinal fluid sample to detect antibodies for distemper virus.
    • Blood sample to detect low white blood cells, low platelet count, and other unspecified alterations in the blood cells.

Note that the canine distemper virus is better detected in urine and for more extended periods than in other samples.

Canine Distemper Treatment and Cure

As with other viral infections, canine distemper has no specific treatment. Any treatment given to your infected dog is for managing the symptoms and curing any secondary bacterial infections. Your dog’s vet may give antibiotics, but these are not against the virus. They will control or cure any presenting bacterial infections. 

A dog with distemper virus infection may also be hospitalized to provide intensive care:

  • Control diarrhea and vomiting symptoms.
  • Give intravenous fluid against dehydration and provide nutrition. 
  • Give anti-seizure therapy.

It’s important to note that canine distemper has no cure, and the best course of action is prevention. Once a dog is infected and survives the disease, the only solution is supportive care to control distemper symptoms and the risk of secondary infections. 

Distemper Virus Prevention and Precautions 

As already stated, prevention is the best solution for the canine distemper virus. Prevention should be done by:

Dog Vaccination against Distemper Virus

Ensure your puppy or dog receives the recommended initial vaccination against the distemper virus as well as the booster doses as shown in the schedule.

PuppiesAdult Dogs
Initial Vaccination3 doses between week 6 and 16 (preferably at weeks 8, 12 and 16).2 doses 3-4 weeks apart.
Booster Doses1 dose 12 months after the preliminary doses. A booster dose every 1-3 years.1 dose 12 months after the preliminary doses.A booster dose every 1-3 years.

Since every dog is unique, it’s important to talk to your dog’s vet about your pet’s vaccination against the distemper virus.

Protecting your Dog against Possible Infections

In addition to vaccinating your dog, take these extra precautions and preventative measures to ensure your dog is not exposed to the distemper virus:

  • Avoid skipping any scheduled distemper virus shots.
  • Keep your dog away from infected dogs and animals (both domestic and wild).
  • Keep your dog’s water, food, and feeding bowls away from distemper-prone wildlife such as raccoons, wolves, and foxes.
  • Avoid crossover clothing or the shared use of feeding and water bowls between dogs in the same home.
  • Vaccinate cats and other ferret pets in your home against the distemper virus.
  • If possible, know if your dog’s play or training mates are vaccinated against the distemper virus before allowing them to interact.
  • Isolate infected dogs to curb the spread of the distemper virus to other healthy dogs.
  • Remove carcasses of infected dogs and decontaminate areas where the dogs have lived to avoid other dogs picking remnants of the virus from these places. 
  • If you deal with wildlife, wear protective gear when handling animals to avoid transferring the virus from wild animals to your dog or other dogs you come into contact with.

Distemper Virus Mortality Rate 

Canine distemper is one of the deadliest dog diseases, preceded only by rabies in deadly canine viral diseases. As such, once a dog is infected with the distemper virus, the chances of recovering are minimal. Fatality may vary depending on the severity of the disease, the age of the dog, and the timeliness and quality of vet care. 

A puppy suffering from the distemper virus
Photo Credit: thebageerafoundation

According to Cornell University, the mortality rate from canine distemper is 80% among puppies and 50% among adult dogs. This certainly high mortality rate is already a fortunate situation compared to a 100% mortality rate among mustelids (weasels, ferrets, minks, and other carnivorous mammals in this class of animals).

Canine Distemper Susceptibility

All dogs can be infected with the distemper virus. However, the following dog categories are more prone to the infection: 

  • Unvaccinated puppies and dogs.
  • Dogs that were vaccinated less than a week before exposure.
  • Puppies under 5 months and older dogs.
  • Free-ranging dogs.
  • Crossbreed dogs.
  • Male dogs.
  • Dogs exposed to interaction with animals that are most susceptible to the disease, especially mustelids (skunks, ferrets, and minks). 

Supporting the fact that these dog categories are more prone to distemper is a study that looked into dog susceptibility to distemper virus infection with regard to age, sex, and breed. The study found that older dogs (over 9 years) and puppies below one year were the most susceptible to distemper virus infection. The less-than-1-year-olds showed greater susceptibility to the infection. 

In addition, distemper virus susceptibility was higher in males than in female dogs. Cross breeds also appeared to be more susceptible to distemper virus infection. For example, Mongrels were more prone to distemper virus infection than German shepherds, Labradors, Dalmatians, and Dobermans

Another study among dogs suspected to have canine distemper found that unvaccinated dogs, free-ranging dogs, and dogs older than 24 months were more susceptible to the canine distemper virus. Instead, dogs younger than 12 months and those with a complete distemper virus vaccination were less prone to infection.

Distemper Virus Post-Disease Effects

We indicated earlier that the distemper virus kills 50% of adult dogs and 80% of puppies. With that knowledge, you should also know that the 50% surviving adult dogs and the 20% surviving puppies bear long-life adverse effects.

Dogs that have had distemper virus infection and have survived it can still manifest the following post-disease effects: 

  • Hyperkeratosis, which is the hardening and enlargement of the skin on the nose and paw pads and is uncomfortable for your dog. It is also the reason canine distemper is sometimes described as “hard pad disease.”
A dog suffering from hyperkeratosis
Photo Credit: capitanbarbone
  • Neurological disorders, including seizures, brain and nerve damage, jaw spasms, muscle twitching, and muscle fatigue. All these reduce your dog’s overall wellbeing and quality of life.
  • Respiratory and GI infections which could fade with time, especially if your dog’s distemper virus infection case was not severe.

Final Thoughts

Canine distemper is both highly contagious and often fatal. If you suspect that your dog has a distemper virus infection, act promptly and seek the professional counsel of your dog’s veterinarian. 

There is no cure for Canine distemper virus infection. And even if your dog survives the disease, the post-disease effects are adverse. That’s why “prevention is better than cure” should be your preferred philosophy when it comes to distemper virus in dogs.