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Distemper in dogs: prevention, symptoms and more

Canine distemper is a contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs.

It’s a really serious disease and is potentially fatal for dogs. But what is exactly is canine distemper, and how can you prevent your dog from catching it?

What is canine distemper? 

Distemper is a serious virus that affects the function of a dog’s organs, including their immune system, stomach, brain and lungs. The disease is highly contagious and is spread in the air and through fluids such as saliva and urine. 

There’s no known cause for distemper and it’s most common in dogs that are less than a year old, who don’t yet have a fully developed immune system. It’s caused by the same virus that causes measles – a microorganism known as morbillivirus.

Before effective vaccines were developed, it was a really dangerous disease for dogs to catch and had a high death rate. 

Read More: Kennel Cough in dogs

How do dogs catch distemper? 

Canine distemper can be passed on by breathing in the virus from a dog or environment (such as a park or street), or through contact with infected and unvaccinated dogs, where the virus is passed on through bodily fluids such as nasal discharge or infected faeces.

Distemper can live in an environment for long periods of time and due to its highly infectious nature, it can be picked up easily by dogs that aren’t adequately protected with regular vaccines.  

cute brown puppy in the park

What are the stages of distemper?

Infected dogs usually show symptoms of the disease a week to two weeks after coming into contact with the virus. If left untreated, the virus can progress through to more serious stages of infection. Initial signs of distemper in dogs include:

  • Weepy eyes and nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Lethargy

The initial stages of the disease can often go unnoticed, especially if your dog has previously received vaccinations, but has missed yearly top-up boosters. As distemper progresses, symptoms can include: 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Thickened paw pads

At this stage, some dogs’ immune system will fight the disease, but in other cases, after the initial symptoms have stopped, the nervous system can be affected which can cause the following symptoms: 

  • Twitching
  • Seizures 
  • Stiff muscles 
  • Weakness in limbs
  • Pneumonia 
  • Imbalance

Around one in every five dogs with distemper dies as a result of complications, so it’s vital to keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date.

Is my dog at risk of catching distemper? 

If your puppy hasn’t had their first injection, it won’t be protected against distemper. 1-2 weeks after completing their first vaccine course, your puppy will be able to walk outside and mix with other dogs. 

Until your dog develops the protection that the jab provides, your puppy will be able to explore your garden, providing that no other dogs have recently used the space. You can also carry your puppy around to interesting places, such as parks and markets, to expose them to stimulating smells, sounds and experiences. 

If your dog isn’t up to date on their vaccinations and yearly top up boosters, they are at an increased risk of catching canine distemper, so it’s really important to make sure that your dog receives their regular vaccinations. To find out more about vaccinations and booking appointments, speak to your vet. 

Read More: Puppy vaccinations - answering your questions

Why it’s important to vaccinate your dog against canine distemper

Like kennel cough, distemper is quick and easy to vaccinate against. In fact, the distemper vaccine is so effective that the disease is rarely seen in vaccinated dogs.

With around one in every five infected dogs dying as a result of complications such as pneumonia or neurological symptoms such as problems with the brain – both of which can be caused by a weakened immune system – it’s vital to get new puppies vaccinated and to keep them up to date with their annual booster injections.

As well as protecting your dog or puppy against this highly contagious and nasty disease, regular vaccination is required by kennels and pet insurers as a condition of cover.

Need advice on distemper in dogs?

For more information on canine distemper and the vaccination process, contact your local vet.

Find your nearest vet using our Find a Vet page, or speak to a vet online using Online Vets.