Distemper is a virus that affects multiple systems, including the respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems. 

It is very contagious, and often fatal.

It is most common in unvaccinated puppies; however, unvaccinated adult dogs can also get distemper. Distemper is common in rescue dogs or puppies.


The distemper virus spread through the air by:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing

There is a much higher chance of getting the disease in areas where there are a lot of unvaccinated dogs.  This can include shelters, unregulated breeding operations and public parks.


Canine distemper has many signs because the disease affects several systems of the body.
Early stage of infection, affecting the respiratory tract:

  • Discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Pneumonia

Second stage of infection, affecting the gastrointestinal tract:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Advanced stages of infection, affecting the central nervous system:

  • Depression
  • Stumbling
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures: usually begin with an involuntary snapping of the jaws and lead to full-body jerking

If you think your dog has distemper, you should keep it away from other dogs.

Dogs rarely recover from distemper on their own, so go to your veterinarian immediately.


There is no specific test that can be performed to give a distemper diagnosis.

Your veterinarian will consider the following:

  • Signs
  • Vaccine history
  • Environment

The veterinarian may also do the following tests:

  • Complete blood cell count (CBC)
  • Biopsies
  • X-rays
  • Bacterial cultures


There is no cure for distemper itself. Your veterinarian will probably admit your pet to the hospital for isolation, and treat your dog’s signs. For example:

  • If your dog has pneumonia: antibiotics, airway dilators, physical therapy to help your dog cough and clear its lungs
  • If your dog has diarrhea: intravenous fluids for dehydration, anti-diarrhea drugs

Once the disease has affected the neurological system, it is even more difficult to treat. Your veterinarian can give medications to help control seizures. It is possible for dogs to recover once they have entered this stage of distemper, but there are usually long-term effects.

Once your veterinarian decides that your dog is stable enough to go home, it is important to watch your dog’s appetite and how much it drinks, and continue to give all medications. Keep your pet in a clean and warm environment to prevent a relapse.


Prevention of distemper is through vaccination. The basic vaccine for dogs is “the distemper shot”, which protects against distemper, parvovirus, and other diseases.

Your dog must receive regular vaccinations to stay immune.

Nursing puppies receive antibodies from their mother that help them fight infection. This begins to dwindle when the puppy is 6 to 12 weeks of age, at which point you must get it vaccinated.

Your veterinarian will probably recommend:

  • Vaccination every 2 to 4 weeks from 12 to 16 weeks of age
  • An ongoing schedule of vaccination boosters every 1 to 3 years following

If there is a distemper dog in the house, immediately isolate it from other dogs in the family.


Recovery depends on your dog’s immune response. Dogs with weaker immune systems may not survive early respiratory stage. Stronger dogs may appear to recover after the initial onset, only to develop severe neurological signs.

Distemper is fatal in 50% of cases.

A recovered dog may still spread the virus for 2 to 3 months. It is important to keep this in mind when taking a recovered pet where other dogs are present. If there has been a distemper dog in the house, you should wait 2-3 months before introducing another dog into the house.