Distemper in Puppies

Signs, Treatment, and Prevention

Abandoned dog
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During their lifetime, there's a chance your dog may be exposed to distemper. Wild animals such as raccoons also harbor the virus, so even decades of effective vaccination in the canine population hasn’t eradicated the disease. Vaccines provide the best protection for your dog.

What Is Distemper?

Distemper in puppies is a virus similar to human measles that can affect the nervous system. The distemper virus also infects the wolf, coyote, raccoon, ferret, mink, skunk, otter, and weasel.

Symptoms of Distemper in Puppies

A fever usually occurs three to six days after infection. Pups often develop a characteristic thick white to yellow discharge from their eyes and nose that looks like a runny nose from a cold. While these early symptoms may look like an ordinary cold, they are in fact signs of serious disease. Other symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Trouble breathing
  • Central nervous system symptoms such as seizures, behavioral changes, weakness, and poor coordination

Infection of the respiratory system can cause puppies to cough and develop pneumonia. There may even be a loss of vision in infected eyes, and the skin (particularly the foot pads) may thicken and crack.

Causes of Distemper

Distemper is highly contagious and often fatal. The virus is shed in the saliva, respiratory secretions, urine, and feces. Distemper spreads the same way a virus might spread among people: the virus is transmitted 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 4 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. Diagnosis is typically based on the signs of disease.

Distemper Incubation Period

Incubation is the time it takes from exposure to the development of signs of disease. Within a few days following infection, the virus spreads to lymph nodes and tonsils, and then throughout the body to bone marrow, spleen, and other lymph nodes.

Within five days, the virus begins to destroy white blood cells and puppies develop a fever for a day or two. The virus attacks various body tissues, especially cells that line the surfaces of the body like the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, urinary tract, and the mucous membranes lining the gastrointestinal tract. The virus also infects the kidney, liver, spleen, brain, and spinal cord. Whether or not the infected pup survives, depends on the effectiveness of the dog's immune system.

About 50 percent of adult dogs and 80 percent of puppies develop fatal disease if untreated.


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

Stricken dogs may be given antibiotics to combat secondary infections that result from a suppressed immune system. Fluid therapy and medications help to control diarrhea and vomiting, and counteract dehydration. Anti-seizure medication may be necessary to control seizures. No single treatment is specific or always effective, and it may take ongoing therapy for up to several weeks to conquer the disease.

Each pup 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

By far, the simplest and most effective way to prevent distemper is to vaccinate your puppy. The distemper vaccine is part of the DHPP combination vaccine; the letters stand for distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus.

Recovered pups can shed the virus for weeks or months and can infect other healthy dogs. Sick dogs must be quarantined away from healthy animals. The virus can be killed by most disinfectants 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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