Canine Distemper Virus: What It Is and How to Keep Your Puppy Safe

Canine distemper virus (CDV), also referred to as distemper, is a disease that strikes fear into the hearts of pet owners and veterinary teams alike—and for a good reason. This highly contagious disease causes a great deal of suffering in affected animals and is often fatal in puppies if not treated quickly.

Your team at The COVE is committed to keeping pets safe and healthy. Since National Puppy Day is celebrated on March 23, we wanted to equip pet parents with essential information about this deadly but preventable disease.

What is Canine Distemper?

Discovered in the late 1700s, distemper is a respiratory viral disease that affects a wide variety of mammals, including dogs, ferrets, pandas, coyotes, wolves, foxes, raccoons, and skunks. Distemper does not affect humans.

Canine distemper is most commonly spread by close contact among infected and exposed dogs. Dogs can be exposed anywhere they are in close proximity, such as dog parks, boarding kennels, veterinary clinics, and animal shelters. Usually, the virus is spread through nose-to-nose contact and by infected droplets that pass from dog to dog, but it can also spread by ocular (eye) discharge, urine, and feces. Distemper is also spread through food and water contaminated by these secretions and from a mother dog to her puppies via the placenta. Unvaccinated puppies aged 3 to 6 months are most susceptible, and unvaccinated dogs older in age are also vulnerable.

What Happens During Distemper Infection?

Distemper causes severe illness, affects nearly all the body systems and can be fatal if not treated. When an animal is infected with distemper, the first signs often include fever, runny nose, coughing, lethargy, and low appetite. As the disease progresses, gastrointestinal problems, with vomiting and diarrhea, tend to follow. Secondary infections, including pneumonia, may arise due to lowered immune system function, followed by central nervous system inflammation causing symptoms like head tilting, muscle twitches, jaw chewing movements, and seizures. A thickening of the footpads sometimes also develops, leading to the disease’s nickname, “hard pad disease.”

Dogs who recover from progressed distemper often have permanent nervous system damage.

What Are the Treatment Options for Dogs with Distemper?

Because the signs of canine distemper are similar to other canine respiratory diseases, diagnosis can be tricky. Your primary care veterinarian will perform a complete physical exam and may send a nasal or conjunctival sample to a laboratory for a PCR test. The PCR—polymerase chain reaction—is a highly sensitive test that may take several days to return results.

Once your dog is diagnosed, and depending on how far along the infection is, treatment usually consists of supportive care, including isolation from other dogs, plenty of rest, fluids, balanced nutrition, and careful monitoring.

Hospitalization is vital so affected animals can be placed on intravenous fluid therapy and prevent dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea. Aggressive intravenous therapy is sometimes warranted to support the puppy’s system in fighting off secondary infection, treating neurologic symptoms, and maintaining electrolyte balance. In addition, anti-nausea and anti-diarrheal medications are often given as needed. 

How Can I Prevent Distemper?

Fortunately, vaccination is nearly 100% effective against this disease. Your family veterinarian will recommend a series of vaccines for your puppy or dog based on their lifestyle, age, breed, and overall health. A series is critical since the vaccines are administered for puppies as their immune systems are developing and offer protection while they mature.

A vaccination is not completely protective, but if your dog is vaccinated, the duration and severity of the disease will be significantly reduced.

The virus can survive for a few hours at room temperature and can live outside for a few weeks in shady areas slightly above freezing. It’s not recommended that puppies and unvaccinated dogs visit high-traffic areas that may be contaminated like hiking trails, beaches, and dog parks since these areas are not typically disinfected regularly.

Additional ways to avoid risk are:

  • Ensuring your puppy receives the distemper vaccine series on the schedule recommended by your veterinarian; do not skip vaccines.
  • Avoiding places where dogs are present, such as dog shows, kennels, dog parks, puppy classes, and doggy daycare until your pet is fully vaccinated.
  • Maintaining your pet’s regular wellness checkups and notifying your veterinarian of any changes in your pet’s health or energy levels.
  • Preventing your pet from drinking out of communal water bowls and from investigating pet waste left by other dogs.
  • Staying up to date on any community outbreaks in your area.

With vaccination, preventative steps, and staying informed, you can minimize the risks of canine distemper virus infecting your puppy. If you have any questions or you’re concerned your pet is exhibiting signs of being infected, give us a call 757-935-9111.

About Us

The COVE’s veterinarians and staff wholeheartedly embrace the core values of community, collaboration, commitment, compassion, and integrity. This focus ensures that pets, the people who love them, and their primary care veterinarians have as positive and affirming a healthcare experience as possible, regardless of the circumstances that bring us all together.