Canine Distemper

The canine distemper occurs as a result of a morbillivirus; the same kind of microorganism that leads to humans measles. It is more commonly known as the canine distemper virus or CDV. It is a serious and extremely contagious disease which not only infects dogs but also ferrets, skunks and other animals. It does not, however, affect domestic cats since feline distemper is caused by another, different virus. The replication of the virus initially occurs in the lymphatic tissue of the animal and then finds its way, via the circulatory system, to other areas of the body. It is not uncommon for the dog to die suddenly after being infected. Dogs are of a greater risk between the ages of three and six months old as the immune systems of the puppies have not yet matured. There is a high occurrence of canine distemper in areas where there are many unvaccinated dogs. Therefore, considered a major disease in dogs in the UK, vaccination is highly recommended by veterinarians.


The canine distemper virus is transmitted via bodily fluids such as nasal discharge, urine and faeces, but most commonly by airborne droplets which contain the virus. The dogs breathe these in and so allowing the disease to enter into the animal’s respiratory tract. Any contaminated drinking water or food may also harbour the virus.

Fortunately, unlike some of the other major canine diseases, the majority of disinfectants can destroy the virus, thus eliminating it. In addition it cannot live for prolonged periods of time without its host. Dogs undergoing recovery should be kept away from other dogs as the can still pass on the virus, though once fully recovered this should no longer happen.


The most well-known symptom is the presentation of hard pads as a result of the canine distemper virus and occurs mainly in older dogs. Other symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and lethargy. The dog may also show signs of slight respiratory distress which can include coughing and laboured breathing. There can be some nasal discharge, accompanied by a high temperature. In addition, there is sometimes some swelling around the eyes along with some discharge or even lesions on the retina. Pregnant bitches may undergo spontaneous abortions or pass it on to their unborn puppies that, generally, later die a few days after birth. As the disease progresses seizures are known to develop as well as paralysis or partial paralysis.

Treatment and Prevention

In addition to the other major canine diseases caused by viruses, there is no cure for canine distemper. The treatment used can only help reduce the symptoms resulting from the disease. For example, if dehydration is observed then fluid should be administered via an IV. Antibiotics are also sometimes given to prevent the possibility of a secondary infection. In this way, the dog’s immune system fights of the disease by itself and all that can be done from an outsider’s point of view is to support it.

Vaccination is strongly encouraged by veterinarians to prevent the spread of canine distemper and they can be administered to puppies at around six weeks of age. Annual booster shots should then be given to prolong the immunity of the dog against the disease. If a dog has contracted the disease then it should be isolated from other dogs and the area thoroughly disinfected.

Diagnosis and Prognosis

Blood tests are used to determine the presence of the virus usually after having observed the symptoms presented by the animal. Dogs that have experienced the neurological effects of the disease such as having seizures have a poor prognosis and are sometimes euthanized. Other dogs which fight of the disease in the earlier stages can survive and once fully recovered can once again socialise with other dogs.  


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