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Canine distemper

  • Canine distemper is a potentially fatal virus which is closely related to the human measles virus
  • Protection against canine distemper is included in basic dog vaccinations, so it’s essential that these are kept up to date
  • Initial symptoms include fever, cough, loss of appetite and eye and nose discharge
  • As the virus travels through the body, it can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures

What is canine distemper?

Canine distemper is a virus that at one time used to wipe out entire towns of dogs. It’s potentially fatal, can invade the nervous system as well as other parts of the body and is closely related to the measles virus in humans. Nowadays it’s extremely rare, thanks to effective vaccinations which were introduced in the 1950s. However, it remains a risk to dogs who do not have up to date vaccinations, including puppies that have been bred in poor environments without the correct care.

Symptoms in the initial stages can be hard to spot

What are the symptoms of canine distemper?

Initial symptoms of the virus can begin with:

  • Mucousy eye and nose discharge
  • Lack of appetite
  • Coughing
  • Pneumonia
  • Fever (although this can come and go and is hard to detect)

However, this initial stage of the infection can often go unnoticed – particularly in dogs that have some level of protection against the virus thanks to vaccinations, but not enough to guard against it fully due to not keeping up regular boosters.

As the infections spreads through the body, it goes on to cause:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Thickened paw pads (which is why one of the old names for the virus is hard pad disease)

At this stage, some dogs’ immune systems can fight the virus. But in others, one to three weeks after initial symptoms appear – and often after they have cleared – the central nervous system can be affected, causing symptoms including:

  • Seizures (ranging from tremors of the jaw to full body convulsions)
  • Twitching
  • Limb weakness
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Imbalance

How do dogs catch canine distemper?

Dogs that have not had their essential vaccinations are at risk of catching canine distemper. It is typically passed on through direct contact in the saliva of an infected dog when it coughs or sneezes. It can also be transmitted through urine.

The virus is normally caught through direct contact with an infected dog.

How is canine distemper diagnosed?

Confirming a diagnosis of canine distemper is hard, but your vet may carry out what’s called a PCR blood test. Tests to measure antibodies may also be done but false negative results are common.

How is canine distemper treated?

There is no medicinal cure, only prevention. Dogs with the virus will be given supportive care to help their bodies fight the virus and treated with fluids to prevent dehydration and medication to help control seizures.

Will my dog recover from canine distemper?

If an otherwise healthy dog contracts canine distemper and supportive care is provided in the early stages, there is a good chance of a dog making a full recovery. Some dogs are able, at this stage, to make antibodies to fight the infection before it progresses onto the neurological stage. If the virus does affect the nervous system, it is more likely to cause ongoing health problems or death. However, some dogs with strong immune systems can still make a full recovery at this stage.

Distemper can be prevented through regular vaccinations from puppyhood.

Can humans catch distemper?

No. Although it is closely related to the measles virus, canine distemper cannot be passed on to humans. Likewise, human measles cannot be transmitted to dogs.

How to I prevent my dog from catching canine distemper?

The only effective way to protect your dog from canine distemper is to keep their vaccinations up to date. The distemper virus on surfaces is also destroyed by disinfectants, so keeping areas – particularly those which lots of dogs frequent - clean will help.

More about vaccinating your dog.

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— Page last updated 30/05/2023