Distemper in Puppies

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Puppy at the Veterinarian's Office
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Distemper often strikes puppies exposed to the spreadable virus in shelters, kennels, or other environments where there may already be infected and unvaccinated animals. Decades of effective vaccinations in the canine population has not eradicated this serious disease. Regardless of your dog's age you should be especially vigilant about symptoms, such as eye discharge or nervous system problems.

What Is Distemper?

Distemper in puppies is a virus similar to human measles that can affect the nervous system. About 50 percent of adult dogs and 80 percent of puppies that develop this disease will die, especially when left untreated. The distemper virus also infects wild animals, such as the wolf, coyote, raccoon, ferret, mink, skunk, otter, and weasel.

Symptoms of Distemper in Puppies

Early symptoms may look like the puppy has an ordinary cold, but they may be signs of a serious disease. Other symptoms that develop may be more subtle, such as thicker paw skin, or more obvious, such as seizures.

Incubation is the time it takes from exposure to the development of signs of disease. Within a few days following infection, the virus spreads throughout the body. Whether or not the infected pup survives depends on the effectiveness of the dog's immune system. Here are the parts of the puppy's system throughout which the virus travels:

  • Lymph nodes
  • Tonsils
  • Bone marrow
  • Spleen
  • Tissues
  • Skin
  • Respiratory tract
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Brain
  • Spinal cord

Here are the outward symptoms of distemper in puppies:


  • Discharge from nose and eyes
  • Fever
  • Cracked/thickened skin
  • Loss of appetite and diarrhea
  • Trouble breathing/coughing
  • Central nervous system symptoms such as seizures, behavioral changes, weakness, and poor coordination

Discharge From Nose and Eyes

Early on in the disease, puppies may have what appears to be a runny nose. The fluid is often a characteristic thick white to yellow discharge from its nose and eyes that looks like a run-of-the-mill cold symptom.


A fever usually occurs three to six days after infection. This is because the virus destroys white blood cells resulting in a fever that may last a day or two.

Cracked/Thickened Skin

The skin, particularly the puppy's footpads, may thicken and crack.

Diarrhea and Loss of Appetite

The virus can make its way into cells lining the stomach and the intestinal tract, and will possibly appear in the puppy's feces. When the virus has arrived in this area of the puppy's system, it will experience diarrhea and loss of appetite.

Trouble Breathing/Coughing

Infection of the respiratory system can cause puppies to cough and develop pneumonia.

Central Nervous System Issues

When the distemper virus has reached the puppy's nervous system, the dog will display symptoms such as seizures, behavioral changes, weakness, and poor coordination.

Causes of Distemper

Distemper is highly contagious and often fatal. The virus is shed in the saliva, respiratory secretions, urine, and feces. Distemper spreads between animals the same way a virus might spread among people⁠—by sneezing and coughing.

Pups adopted from stressful places like animal shelters, rescues, and pet stores, or homeless pets are the most likely to contract the disease, especially those younger than four months of age. Puppies can look healthy during the incubation period of the disease—even after vaccination—and become sick once in their new home.

Diagnosing Distemper in Puppies

Unvaccinated puppies found in shelters or pet stores may be misdiagnosed with common kennel cough instead of distemper. Obvious clinical symptoms will usually alert a veterinarian to the presence of distemper. However, additional blood, tissue, and nasal/eye swab diagnostic tests can help test for the virus and confirm the diagnosis.


There is no cure for the distemper virus. Pups with severe symptoms usually die within a few weeks, unless hospitalized and given supportive care. Owners can provide some nursing care at home.

Sick dogs that may have less severe symptoms can be given medicine but no single treatment is specific or always effective. It may take ongoing therapy for up to several weeks to conquer the disease in your puppy. Here's what your vet may offer a puppy with distemper:

  • Antibiotics may combat secondary infections that result from a suppressed immune system.
  • Fluid therapy and medications may help to control diarrhea and vomiting and counteract dehydration.
  • Anti-seizure medication may be necessary to control seizures.

Prognosis for Puppies With Distemper

Each puppy responds differently to treatment. For some, the symptoms get better and then worsen before recovery. Others show no improvement despite aggressive treatment. Consult with your veterinarian before making the heartbreaking decision to euthanize a sick puppy.

Dogs that survive infection during puppyhood may suffer enamel hypoplasia—poorly developed tooth enamel that's pitted and discolored. Even dogs that recover from infection may suffer permanent damage to the central nervous system that results in recurrent seizures or other neurological signs for the rest of the dog's life. Protect your puppy with preventive vaccinations, as recommended by your veterinarian, and prevent contact with other unvaccinated dogs and wildlife.

How to Prevent Distemper

Distemper is one puppy disease for which there is a vaccine. By far, the simplest and most effective way to prevent distemper is to adhere to the prescribed vaccination schedule for your puppy. The distemper vaccine is part of the DHPP combination vaccine; the letters stand for distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus.

Is Distemper Contagious to Other Animals?

As mentioned, distemper is highly contagious, even by a puppy recovering from the virus. A recovering puppy will shed the virus for weeks or months, which can still infect other healthy dogs. Sick or recovering dogs must be quarantined away from healthy animals. The virus can be killed on surfaces by using a disinfectant such as household bleach.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
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