Canine distemper: what is it, symptoms, treatment, is it curable?

Pets can also suffer from some diseases, such as distemper. The situation generates concern among owners and owners because the virus that causes it is highly transmissible.

In addition, the lack of clear and noticeable symptoms makes the bug take time to be diagnosed. The disease is quite debilitating and there is little chance of a cure.


What is canine distemper?

Distemper is an infectious disease, with a high contagion capacity, especially among younger dogs. Puppies (under 1 year old) have the highest incidence, but older dogs, especially those that have not been properly vaccinated, are also at risk.

The disease is best known in dogs, and can occur in other wild animals such as ferrets, weasels, raccoons, skunks, but there is also a type of feline distemper ( feline panleukopenia ) that, despite the same name, has no relation to the infection of the dogs.

Transmission occurs when the pet comes into contact with the virus of the paramixovirirdae family , also called CDV (Canine Distemper Virus), which can be directly through the infected dog, through the air or through contaminated surfaces.

It is important to note that it is not a zoonosis, that is, humans are not infected by the virus.

It is possible that the puppy does not show symptoms, but is a carrier of the virus. That is, despite not looking sick, your pet can transmit the disease. But when symptoms do appear, they tend to be quite aggressive, with a high mortality rate.

About 15% of dogs manage to survive, but generally with high compromise of health and quality of life, and it is usually necessary to sacrifice it.

Among cats, the survival rate is even lower, with only 10% of those infected recovering.

Due to the risk of death, the veterinarian should be called immediately after suspecting distemper.

The best way to prevent and care for the health of pets, avoiding the risks of distemper, is through vaccination.


The first manifestation of distemper occurred in Spain, in 1761. A few years later, the British physician Edward Jenner detailed the disease in 1809. However, it was only in 1905 that the French veterinarian Henri Carré determined what the cause was.

Carré’s claims were questioned by investigators in England until 1926, until they were substantiated by Patrick Laidlaw and GW Dunkin.

The vaccine against the disease was created by the Italian Puntoni. In 1923 and 1924, two articles were published by him, based on the use of formaldehyde in the brain tissue of infected dogs.

The commercial vaccine was produced in 1950, but due to its restricted use, the virus continued to act in different species.


Distemper is caused by the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), also known as Canine Esgana virus . It is an RNA virus belonging to the Paramyxoviridae group , of the Morbillivirus family.

Considered an opportunistic virus, the CDV more easily reaches dogs with low or weakened immunity, such as puppies, the elderly or those who have a disease.

If the body has good conditions of immunity, it is possible that it will be able to fight the infection, eliminate the agent and prevent the disease.


Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) is transmitted from a dog to other animals through saliva, urine or blood, through direct contact between animals or, also, through the environment.

For example, pots of water, dog houses, clothes, beds, feces and urine, saliva or the infected air itself can cause the transmission of the disease.

Even when treated, dogs can pass on to other animals up to four months after the disease improves.

Since the virus is usually incubated (that is, it is in the body, but does not show symptoms), even if the infected dog has no symptoms, it can be a transmitter of distemper. On average, the incubation period is between 14 and 18 days.

Risk factors

All dogs, of all ages and breeds, can contract distemper. However, puppies and those who have not been vaccinated are more prone to the disease. The risk of serious infections also increases under these conditions.

Puppies less than 7 weeks old and whose mothers are not immunized are even more susceptible to infection, due to the still weakened immune system, exposing them to secondary infections, such as pneumonia .

Some factors and conditions can make the puppy more vulnerable, such as:

  • Age : puppies and elderly dogs have lower immunity;
  • Vaccination : unvaccinated dogs;
  • Low immunity : diseases or conditions that affect the dog’s immunity;
  • Breeds : some breeds have higher rates of distemper, such as Husky, Greyhound (English Greyhound), Weimaraner, Samoyed and the Alaskan Malamutes.

What are the first symptoms of distemper?

The estimated time between infection and disease varies from 14 to 18 days (incubation time). The initial signs of canine distemper include acute fever , low levels of platelets and white blood cells, which may be followed by anorexia , runny nose and eye.

Usually, the disease manifests itself in phases, with more characteristic symptoms in each one, but it is not a rule. Thus, the puppy may have different symptoms together. Know the main symptoms of the respiratory and ocular phases:


Respiratory changes are usually part of the first stage of the disease and include:

  • Nasal discharge;
  • Presence of pus in the respiratory tract;
  • Cough;
  • Dyspnea (difficulty breathing);
  • Pneumonia (inflammation of the air sacs or both lungs)

The distrust of distemper increases due to the progression of pneumonia, worsening of the signs after 2 weeks of treatment or the appearance of other signs and symptoms.


  • Anterior uveitis (inflammation in the frontal part of the eye), giving a cloudy appearance to the cornea;
  • Changes in the physiognomy of the iris;
  • Dry keratoconjunctivitis (dry eye due to not adequate moisture provided by tears);
  • Optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve);
  • Injury or alteration of the retina.

These are signs that are considered unusual, but when perceived together with the other signs, they reinforce the distemper hypothesis.

Other symptoms

In addition to the respiratory and ocular phases, other signs may manifest themselves at different intensities and frequencies. But they are, in general, serious and quite compromising canine health. Between them:

  • Anorexia (loss of appetite);
  • Vomiting;
  • Diarrhea, with or without blood;
  • Thickened paw pads (digital hyperkeratosis);
  • Tiredness;
  • Somnolence;
  • Convulsions;
  • Weakness;
  • Paralysis;
  • Canine Vestibular Syndrome (inclination of the head, loss of balance or walking in circles);
  • Lymphopenia (reduction in the number of leukocytes), recurrent in the first week after contagion;
  • Myoclonus (sudden and involuntary muscle contraction);
  • Neck pain and stiffness;
  • Behavior changes;
  • Pustular dermatitis (rash related to a positive prognosis).

They usually appear about 1 to 3 weeks after the other signs, and can develop simultaneously only months later.

When to look for a vet?

Since the initial symptoms tend to be quite comprehensive and common (drowsiness and coughing , for example), serious illness is not always suspected.

Therefore, whenever your pet shows any change in behavior or malaise, the veterinarian should be consulted to avoid delays in diagnosis.

How is the diagnosis made?

When the animal shows any of the signs, take it to the veterinarian immediately. Tests for distemper confirmation include:

RT-PCR (reverse transcriptase reaction, followed by polymerase chain reaction)

The RNA virus is detected through respiratory secretions, cerebrospinal fluid (body fluid located in the brain and spinal cord), feces or urine.

Even if the result is negative, the disease should not be ruled out, especially when samples are taken when distemper is already advanced. False positives can occur around 1 to 3 weeks after vaccination.


Immunofluorescence allows distemper antigens to be detected. False negatives are very common in this test. Its accuracy works best at the beginning of the disease’s contraction.

Urine and bladder samples can be positive in the first 3 weeks of infection. The virus in the central nervous system (CNS) lasts for at least 60 days.

Lentz Corpuscle Search

Blood samples are collected from the dog and sent for laboratory analysis. In them, erythrocytes and leukocytes are evaluated, which allow to indicate changes in normal blood rates.


Organs, such as the spleen, stomach, bladder and brain, must be analyzed by a pathologist in order to identify distemper, which can reach different tissues. Generally, the exam is requested to assess the degree of involvement of the animal.


A sample of the animal’s secretion is collected, which can be through urine, eyes, saliva or even nasal secretions. If antigens are present in the sample, the diagnosis is confirmed.

Canine distemper cure?

Yes, distemper is curable, but the chances are, in general, low. If diagnosed and treated early in the infection, along with an effective immune system of the animal, it is possible to think about curing the disease.

What is the treatment for distemper?

At the moment, there is no treatment for distemper itself. Most dogs can receive veterinary assistance in secondary problems arising from the virus. That is, the pet can use medicines and receive therapies that are able to alleviate secondary symptoms.

Among the treatments are:

  • Intravenous fluids and nutrients (applied to the vein), in order to prevent dehydration;
  • Antibiotics to fight infections by other agents;
  • Medications to relieve vomiting and diarrhea;
  • Anticonvulsants and sedatives to contain seizures;
  • Use of glucocorticoids to prevent blindness.

Therefore, the goal of treatment is to alleviate the dog’s malaise and strengthen the immune system.

According to a case report produced by the University of Florida Veterinary Medical Center in 2013, botulinum toxin type A ( botox ) can be administered to treat the myoclonus of a dog that may have distemper.

The substance was inserted into the affected muscles. The improvement of the problem was noticed in 5 hours. It was necessary to repeat the process 18 days later. The study points out that there were no long-term side effects.

How can the dog live with distemper?

Newly treated dogs should be kept isolated from other animals, especially puppies and unvaccinated dogs, as their immune system is compromised.

The time of this isolation is around 4 months or until the negative result of the RT- PCR exam is verified . Therefore, it is important to maintain a routine of consultations with the veterinarian.

As in most cases the act of isolating the animal is not possible, the RT-PCR analysis serves to verify whether the dog still has the virus.

Samples of nasal and rectal material should be taken for several days within a period of 2 weeks after rehabilitation.

During this period, the ideal is to take care of your pet’s well-being, paying attention to regular water changes, cleaning the pots and beds, periodic baths and cleaning the environment as a whole.

Giving attention and affection to the dog is essential, because just like humans, animals feel debilitated, sad and fragile.

Taking care of the medication schedule and promoting comfort are measures that help in recovery and prevent worsening in other aspects of canine health.

It is worth remembering that the disease is not a zoonosis and, therefore, there are no risks for the owner of the animal.


When the prognosis is positive, even so, remnants or sequelae of the disease usually remain, such as spacing or enlargement of the paw pads and hypoplasia of the dental enamel, which is perceived mainly in puppies.

In it, the virus tends to attack the cells that produce tooth enamel, resulting in very rapid deterioration of the dental surface.

When the dog manifests neurological changes, the prognosis tends to be less favorable, as the lesions are usually irreversible and cause great impairment of the pet’s health.

In most cases, about 85% do not survive due to late diagnosis and severe worsening of distemper. Among the other 15%, there is a need to assess the condition of the animal, as it is often necessary to resort to euthanasia.

In addition, the prognosis depends on factors such as the animal’s immunity, age, quality of life and health, and the speed with which the diagnosis is made.


Recovered dogs may have seizures or other problems related to the central nervous system. The disorders can appear years later, even at an older age.

Brain and nerve failures can be long lasting and also develop much later.

Over time, the dog begins to experience intense seizures, paralysis, reduced vision and coordination problems. Those with these disorders feel a lot of pain and have a severe impairment of quality of life. Therefore, they are usually sacrificed.

Still, the survival rate is low, causing canine distemper to result in the death of the animal.

How to prevent distemper?

The main way of preventing distemper is the vaccine. It is estimated that the lack of immunization increases the chances of infection by up to 100 times.

The vaccine dose is recommended until the dog is 12 weeks old, as it is until that age that, in general, they lose all maternal antibodies.

The CDV can be removed from the environment by cleaning with disinfectants, detergents and drying. It does not resist at room temperature (20ºC to 25ºC).

However, in places with shade or low temperature, the virus can last for a few weeks. Whey and tissue residues further extend their life span.

The threat of transmission lessens when:

  • There are few animals in the environment;
  • Shelter dogs are accommodated individually or in pairs;
  • The places where they sleep have porous surfaces and marks (such as bites), in addition to being clean and dry;
  • Pots of water and food are cleaned regularly;
  • Consultations with veterinarians are periodic;
  • Contact with sick dogs is avoided;
  • Attention to the signs and symptoms of the animal is always verified and care with immunity and health in general is prioritized;
  • Places with many dogs have common areas restricted to dogs over 5 months old vaccinated.

In addition, even if vaccinated, it is important to take care of the pet’s health through a balanced diet (recommended by the veterinarian), up-to-date vaccination schedule, physical activity, low stress levels and regular consultations.

These factors help to maintain the dog’s immunity higher, fighting various infections.


The distemper vaccine in dogs less than 16 weeks should be administered in 3 doses. Puppies should be vaccinated at 6 to 16 weeks of age.

In adult dogs (over 16 weeks), the vaccine needs to be given in 2 doses, 3 to 4 weeks apart.

Puppies should be boosted 1 year after the first vaccine and all puppies should be boosted every 3 years or less.

In general, the vaccine is very safe and has no adverse reactions, but if the dog is very young, elderly or has low immunity, encephalitis may occur within 2 weeks after application.

If the animal is exposed to the virus during those first days after the vaccine, it can still contract distemper. But, in general, the conditions are milder and tend to recover well.

Dogs 4 to 6 weeks of age or older need to be vaccinated against distemper soon after receiving a modified vaccine, used as a resource in cases of an outbreak or when the animal is subject to a high risk of exposure.

There is also a recombinant vaccine that is also efficient and offers even greater protection than maternal antibodies.

Although it has good results, the vaccine does not provide a rapid defense against infections.

A portion of dogs still may not react to the vaccine. Among the possible reasons, puppies under 5 months of age usually have antibodies passed from their mother that can inhibit the vaccine’s functioning.

The durability of these antibodies varies for each dog, so there is a need for vaccine boosters.

Distemper in cats

The name of the infection is the same, but the disease is quite different. Feline distemper, called feline panleukopenia , is also quite contagious and has a high mortality rate.

Healthy cats are exposed to the virus through feces, urine, blood or nasal secretions from other infected animals.

Outside the body, the virus is quite resistant, and can survive for a few months if conditions are favorable. Among the most recurrent symptoms are tiredness , mood swings, vomiting, fever, reduced appetite and diarrhea (possibly having blood).

When it gets worse, feline distemper can cause seizures, episodes in which the animal attacks itself and causes death. Prevention occurs through vaccination.

Just like in canine disease, distemper in cats has no specific treatment and the medication only aims to combat the symptoms resulting from the infection.

Common questions

Will all exposed dogs get sick?

No. Even unvaccinated dogs can be resistant to the virus and, therefore, manage to eliminate it. In addition, puppy dogs can maintain their mother’s defense cells for a few weeks after birth, making them more immune to infection.

The likelihood of contraction depends on the immunological condition and the vaccine history of the animal, the cleaning routine of the place and whether there is contact with another infected animal.

How long does treatment for distemper last?

It depends. There is no specific treatment for distemper, so the drugs administered and the interventions made are to fight secondary infections and relieve symptoms.

The duration of treatment also depends on the dog’s immune system. Thus, it may be that the recovery is slower or takes longer.

Can humans contract distemper?

No. Distemper is not characterized as zoonosis and therefore cannot be transmitted to humans.

Can I vaccinate my dog ​​if it has already been infected?

No. The purpose of the vaccine is to make the immune system come into contact with an attenuated (weakened) virus, so that, if there is contagion, the body already has antibodies capable of fighting it. If the animal is already sick, the vaccine will have no effect.

Can distemper be passed from the mother to the puppy?

The cases are rare, but yes. If the mother has not been vaccinated and is infected, the children can receive the virus and begin to manifest the disease between the 4th and 6th weeks of life.

Canine distemper is a canine disease, but it can also affect other animals. Caused by a virus and highly contagious, the pathology can cause several sequelae and even the death of the animal.

So, be aware of the signs displayed by your pet. Consult the veterinarian immediately after distemper is suspected.

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