What Should Dog Owners Know About Canine Distemper Virus

What is Canine Distemper Virus?

Canine distemper virus is a life threatening and contagious airborne disease that attacks a dog’s gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract and central nervous system (CNS). It is transmitted via droplets and aerosols that are released from an infected dog that coughs and sneezes. Another route of transmission is transplacentally from mother to fetus. Unfortunately, around 50% of dogs and 80% of puppies diagnosed with distemper will die. Distemper outbreaks can occur within wildlife populations, especially raccoons. Clinical symptoms of distemper seen in wild animals may be mistaken for rabies.   

Clinical Symptoms Include...

An infected dog will likely experience respiratory and GI related symptoms first (stage 1) followed by CNS abnormalities once the virus has spread systemically (stage 2). Clinical symptoms tend to appear 1-2 weeks after exposure.  

Respiratory and GI Symptoms:

  • ocular discharge (watery eyes)
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • pneumonia
  • anorexia
  • vomiting
  • fever

CNS Symptoms:

  • ataxia (poor coordination and balance)
  • partial or complete paralysis
  • shaking/twitching
  • seizures
  • hyperkeratosis (keratin hardening of the nose and paw pads)
  • circling
  • head tilt
  • nystagmus (repetitive eye movements)
  • death

How is Canine Distemper Virus Diagnosed?

There is no specific test available to diagnose distemper, therefore, diagnosis may involve a couple different methods of testing, as well as evaluating the patient’s symptoms and obtaining a thorough history. Diagnostic tests that may be utilized include: immunofluorescence assay (IFA), which involves looking for inclusion bodies in urine or cerebrospinal fluid, blood tests to identify the presence of antibodies, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which identifies viral material in saliva, feces, urine or cerebrospinal fluid. Postmortem diagnosis requires performing a histopathology (evaluating a tissue sample) on multiple organs, such as the stomach, lymph nodes, intestines and brain.

How is Canine Distemper Treated?

There is no specific treatment available for the canine distemper virus so treatment mainly involves supportive care, such as antibiotics, if a secondary infection is present or anti-seizure medications for seizing patients. Distemper may cause permanent neurological damage. 

Is Canine Distemper Virus Preventable?


The canine distemper virus vaccine is a core vaccine. The initial series requires three shots administered 3-4 weeks apart. Puppies can receive the first vaccine at 6 weeks old.  A booster shot is required 1 year after the initial series then only once every three years. Until the initial series is completed, puppies should remain isolated from other dogs and wooded areas.

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