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Dog Distemper​

Canine distemper is an exceedingly infectious viral disease that comes from the canine distemper virus or CDV. Distemper is often fatal and incurable, affecting multiple organ systems in a dog’s body, including respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems.

Unfortunately, canine distemper does not only affect dogs. It can also infect other wildlife populations, such as foxes, coyotes, wolves, pandas, ferrets, raccoons, and skunks.

Canine distemper can be highly present worldwide, significantly in dog populations where the volume of stray dogs is high, and the vaccination rates are low (VCA Hospital). Good thing, various vaccinations made this disease less common than it was before. With that, it is essential to maintain dog vaccinations to keep this improvement going.


Canine distemper can transfer to other animals through respiratory secretions. When a dog barks, coughs or sneezes, it can release aerosol droplets that go to other animals or things. Moreover, these secretions can bring the virus to food and water bowls where other dogs eat every day.

Apart from respiratory secretions, puppies born to an unvaccinated or infected mother are at high risk for contraction and infection of the disease in utero or placenta. After birth, puppies can also get the disease from nursing from an infected mother dog.

This viral disease can also spread in crowded shelters quickly, where many animals have poor immune systems. Dogs in shelters usually have weaker immune systems because they all stay in one confined space with other animals. Therefore, these animals are more susceptible to the disease.

Aside from shelters, canine distemper viruses can also live in the environment for several hours. However, it does not live much longer compared to when it is outside of a host. 

But even if the virus cannot survive outside a dog’s body for a long time, it can still transfer to equipment, hands, feet, etc. With that, it is essential to note various precautions to prevent the contagion of the disease.

Incubation Period

The incubation period is the usual span from an animal’s initial exposure to a virus to when the clinical signs appear. This period depends on various factors, such as the animal’s age, the severity of the disease, and the health of the animal’s immune system. The incubation period in canine distemper is usually one to two weeks, but it can be as long as six weeks.

Periodically, neurological signs will start to show in dogs that never showed any other symptoms months after the initial exposure. For this reason, dogs should undergo a quarantine period for at least a month to protect other animals, significantly when in shelters.

It is also crucial to know that there are instances where some dogs exposed to the virus will not become infected. However, a quarantine period will help ensure the animals’ safety.

Signs and Symptoms

Canine distemper can impact three central body systems of a dog, including the central nervous system, upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract. When looking for clinical signs of the virus, you will need to find symptoms in order because it usually occurs in three stages. 

Nevertheless, it is essential to remember that dogs handle these symptoms differently. Some dogs may show severe symptoms, while others may experience otherwise. The severity of the signs may depend on various factors, such as the dog’s immune system.

Dogs with healthy immune systems have a higher chance of fighting off the virus. On the other hand, dogs with weak immune systems will most likely experience a hard time fighting off the illness.

First Stage

Canine distemper in dogs can lead to sneezing, coughing, lethargy, pus-like discharge from the eyes, nasal discharge, and a high fever that can last for three to six days. Frequently, people misunderstand that the first stage of canine distemper is the symptoms of other illnesses such as influenza. 

Second Stage

There may be gastrointestinal tract inflammations in the second stage of the symptoms of canine distemper. These inflammations may lead to diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Aside from that, you may also notice anorexia or reduced appetite, and a persistent cough.

Third Stage

Neurological symptoms may begin to appear in the last stage. The signs usually show within one to three weeks. Some symptoms may include head tilt, convulsions with jaw chewing, muscle cramps, seizures, salivation, and paralysis. Aside from that, you may also look for tics or tremors, aggressiveness, thickening and hardening of footpads, and retinal discoloration.


Canine distemper diagnosis can be pretty challenging, as no simple tests can give you a positive or negative result for the illness. Usually, your veterinarian will most likely start with a physical examination. The vet will look at your dog from head to tail and take vitals like weight, heart rate, and rectal temperature.

On the other hand, your vet will also ask about your dog’s medical history, including your dog’s previous diseases and vaccine history. After that, your vet will run a series of tests to help confirm a diagnosis. To further explain this, here are the tests that your dog may undergo.

Urine Test

Your veterinarian will perform urine tests to screen for a reduced number of lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are white blood cells working together to combat infections and foreign substances. If the test yields a low result, it is good to indicate that the dog examined does have canine distemper.

Electrolyte Test

Electrolyte tests may help ensure that your pet does not suffer from results from the virus, such as dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. Using intravenous fluid (IV) and potassium intake can help restore the said electrolytes and fluids.

Antibody Test

Antibody tests can help determine if your pet has become previously exposed to specific illnesses such as distemper. An antibody titer test dilutes a blood sample and exposes it to the Distemper antigen to determine the antibodies’ concentration in the blood.

If the test generates a positive result, the antibodies have high levels that protect it from the virus. Otherwise, a negative result indicates that the antibody does not have any protective levels.

Blood Test

A blood test will screen for antibodies to distemper as well as count the quantity of white and red blood cells in your dog’s body. In the early stages of the illness, a low blood cell count is a good predictor of the sickness and may indicate moderate anemia. Since a single blood sample has little diagnostic value, your veterinarian will routinely obtain blood samples two weeks apart to monitor for rising or lowering numbers.


Thoracic radiography or chest X-ray will provide a picture of a dog’s body internally. Through that, your veterinarian will see the physical changes in a dog’s lungs. 

Your vet may perform a chest x-ray to determine if your dog has pneumonia due to the canine distemper virus. After that, your dog can undergo follow-up x-rays to confirm that pneumonia has become moderate after resolving the symptoms.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test

The polymerase chain reaction or PCR test uses molecular methods to look closely at the virus from feces, blood samples, or respiratory secretions. To achieve the best results, performing this test within the first three weeks after infection can be the best way. 

But there are tendencies where you will not know if a dog has the virus until the last stage when the neurological symptoms start to appear.

PCR tests may also help determine adoption safety by retesting dogs two or three weeks after complete recovery from the symptoms. Dogs that have a negative result should become considered safe to be adopted.

Nasal Swab

To confirm canine distemper, your vet can test eye and nose secretions resulting from the disease. Your veterinarian will moisten a nasal swab with sterile saline and insert it into your dog’s nasal cavity to perform the test. Your vet will then swab both nostrils and will place the swab into a clean tube.

Environmental Factors

Technically speaking, Canine Distemper viruses are single strands of RNA wrapped in a protein coat and then encased inside a fatty envelope (Mar Vista Animal Medical Center, 2013). This fatty envelope around the virus makes the environment easily disrupt the virus, and the virus will be unable to live more than a few hours at room temperature. Moist and cold temperatures allow the virus to live at least several weeks.

Since the virus is highly vulnerable outside of a host, using the most common disinfectants and cleaning your house and dog shelters routinely can destroy the virus. To protect your hands while cleaning, we recommend always wearing disposable gloves when using cleaning products.

Top 5 Frequently Asked Questions

Canine distemper can spread to other animals through various transmissions, such as coughing, sneezing, or barking, where aerosol droplets become transmitted to nearby animals and things. Moreover, it can also transfer through the blood or urine of infected dogs or the placenta of infected mothers.

Distemper virus cannot live for a long time in an outside environment or outside a host’s body. It can only survive for minutes or hours at room temperature and in colder places for a few weeks or days. With that, it is best to perform disinfections regularly to eradicate viruses that may be present in your home.

When cleaning after distemper, a common disinfectant such as bleach can help eradicate the virus. You only need to mix one part of bleach with thirty parts of water and use it in wiping and cleaning your whole home, including your dog’s belongings.

We recommend thoroughly washing, disinfecting, and drying your place at least twice. Unlike the canine parvovirus, canine distemper can only survive outside a host for a few hours (longer when the temperature becomes colder).

Unfortunately, the only treatment available for canine distemper is supportive care. This treatment may include anti-seizure medications, IV fluids, and other medications to control diarrhea and vomiting. Your veterinarian can also prescribe antibiotics to help with secondary bacterial infections that may occur.

Usually, you start noticing symptoms in your dog within 1-2 weeks. However, it can also take 4-5 weeks before you can see possible signs. Initial symptoms may include lethargy and a high fever that can look like your dog has the flu.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

Having your dog undergo at least 30 days of quarantine is best when your dog has canine distemper. Aside from that, the shedding process of the distemper may take up to 4 months. It will be better to take necessary precautions, such as isolation from other dogs in your household, dog parks, or any places with crowded dogs.



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