Canine Distemper

Distemper is a very contagious and serious viral illness which has no known cure. Distemper belongs to the Morbillivirus class of viruses, and is a relative of the measles virus, which affects humans, the Rinderpest virus that affects cattle, and the Phocine virus that causes seal distemper. All are members of the Paramyxoviridae family.

Symptoms and Types

The virus is not only spread through the air, but can also be passed on by direct or indirect (i.e. utensils, bedding) contact with another infected animal. Initially the virus will attack a dog’s tonsils and lymph nodes, it then replicates itself there for about one week. Then it moves on to attack the respiratory, urogenital, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems.

During the initial stages of distemper, the major symptoms include a high fever, reddened eyes, and a watery discharge from the nose and eyes. An infected dog will become lethargic and tired, and will usually become anorexic. Persistent coughing, vomiting, and diarrhoea may also occur. During the later stages of the disease, the virus starts attacking other systems within the dog’s body, particularly the nervous system. The brain and spinal cord are affected and the dog may start having fits, seizures, paralysis, and attacks of hysteria.

Certain strains of the distemper virus can cause an abnormal enlargement or thickening of the dog’s paw pads. If a dog has a particularly weak immune system, death may occur in as little as two to five weeks after the initial infection.


The disease can be acquired from improperly attenuated vaccines, though this is rare. Bacterial infections of the respiratory or gastrointestinal systems may also increase a dogs vulnerability to the disease. Non-immunized dogs that come into contact with an infected animal carry a particularly high risk of contracting the disease.


Distemper is diagnosed through biochemical tests and urine analysis, which may also reveal a reduced number of lymphocytes, the white blood cells that function within the immune system in the initial stages of the disease (lymphopenia). A serology test ( the diagnostic examination of blood serum ) may identify positive antibodies, but this test cannot distinguish between vaccination antibodies and an exposure to a virulent virus. Viral antigens may be detected within urine sediment or vaginal imprints. Haired skin, nasal mucous, and the footpad epithelium might also be tested for antibodies as well. Radiographs can only be used to determine whether an infected dog has contracted pneumonia. CT (Computed tomography ) and MRI ( magnetic resonance imaging ) scans can be used to examine the dog’s brain for any lesions that may have developed.


Unfortunately, there is no known cure for distemper. Treatment for the disease, therefore, is focused purely on alleviating the symptoms. If the dog has become anorexic or has diarrhoea, intravenous supportive fluids may be given. Discharge from the eyes and nose must be cleaned away regularly. Antibiotics may be prescribed to control the symptoms caused by a secondary bacterial infection, other drugs may also be prescribed to control any convulsions and seizures that the dog might be experiencing. There are no antiviral drugs that are effective in treating the disease.

Living and Management

During the later stages of distemper, it is necessary to monitor the dog for development of pneumonia and / or dehydration from diarrhoea. The central nervous system (CNS) must also be monitored because seizures and other neural disturbances may occur. A dog's chances for surviving distemper will depend on the strain of the virus and the strength of the dog’s immune system. Recovery is entirely possible, although seizures and other fatal disturbances to the CNS may occur two to three months after recovery. Fully recovered dogs do not spread or carry the virus.


The best prevention for distemper is routine vaccinations and immediate isolation of infected animals. Special care must be taken to protect new-born puppy’s from exposure, since they are especially susceptible to the disease.