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What is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a highly contagious virus that affects the respiratory, digestive and nervous systems of several species of wildlife, including coyotes, wolves, foxes, skunks and wild cats, as well as domestic dogs and puppies. 

If infected, dogs can experience symptoms similar to the common cold in humans, including runny noses, coughing, fevers and nasal discharge. Unlike a cold, however, this virus can also affect the stomach and eyes,  and create disturbances in the nerves resulting in twitches, convulsions or seizures. Often incorrectly cited as a cause of kennel cough, canine distemper is a much more serious condition that needs immediate treatment.

Exposure to canine distemper is common in shelters and other areas where there are multiple dogs and puppies. While young dogs who are between 3 to 6 months old are most susceptible, the virus can infect dogs of any age, and sometimes, even vaccinated dogs.

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Symptoms of Canine Distemper in Dogs

The symptoms of canine distemper can range through multiple areas of the body, which is why diagnosis can be challenging. While signs of distemper generally focus on the gastrointestinal, nervous and respiratory systems, the virus can also affect the eyes. Symptoms include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Reduced appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Thick, yellow discharge from eyes
  • Inflammation of the eye
  • Sudden blindness
  • Circling behavior
  • Head tilt
  • Muscle twitches
  • Convulsions
  • Jaw chewing
  • Salivation
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis (partial or complete)
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Causes of Canine Distemper in Dogs

The canine distemper virus (CDV) causes canine distemper in dogs and puppies. It can be spread easily through airborne droplets from an infected dog who coughs, sneezes or leaves behind nasal or eye discharge, and can infect a healthy animal up to 20 feet away. The virus continues to be shed by infected dogs for months after the initial infection. Public areas that house multiple dogs are often places where transmission levels are high, such as at boarders or shelters. Previously vaccinated animals can also contract canine distemper. 

Transmission of canine distemper can be through:

  • Direct contact with an infected dog or wildlife
  • Airborne droplets from the coughing and sneezing of an infected animal
  • Exposure to contaminated food bowls, water bowls, toys, bedding, and other equipment
  • From mother to unborn puppies through placenta

Dogs that are at the highest risk of contracting canine distemper are:

  • Puppies under the age of 4 months
  • Unvaccinated puppies and dogs

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    Diagnosis of Canine Distemper in Dogs

    Canine distemper can be difficult to diagnosis at first, as it is often mistaken for kennel cough, a respiratory condition caused by other viruses. You'll want to note all the various symptoms your dog has been experiencing, as well as their eating and eliminating habits if they have changed. 

    Your veterinarian will give your dog a physical exam. They may also run urine, blood or blood marrow tests to find out which virus is causing your dog's symptoms. Your vet may inquire if your dog has been to any public places recently, including shelters, dog parks, groomers, or boarders, or if they have had any direct contact with wildlife or sick animals. All this information can help your veterinarian make a correct diagnosis. 

    Having a timeline ready for your veterinarian of when the symptoms began is also going to be beneficial. Be sure and describe all the symptoms you notice in your dog, as many of the signs of canine distemper are shared with other conditions or infections. 

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    Treatment of Canine Distemper in Dogs

    There is no cure for canine distemper, or any direct treatment for the virus that causes it. Instead, treatment aims at supporting the body while the immune system kills the virus. 

    In a veterinary hospital, your dog may be given antibiotics to help fight any secondary infections that are common with canine distemper. Fluids are often administered to replace those lost through vomiting, diarrhea and fever to combat dehydration. Other medications can also be prescribed to control vomiting and diarrhea, and to bring down fevers. And lastly, anti-seizure medications can be given to control serious nervous system symptoms, and to prevent seizures.

    The timeline of treatment can be different for each dog, and will continue as long as your dog needs supportive care. Additional treatments can be given as needed, and until symptoms have subsided and your veterinarian feels safe sending your dog home. 

    Infected and recovering dogs should be isolated from healthy ones to prevent transmission. 

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    Recovery of Canine Distemper in Dogs

    For dogs who only experienced symptoms in their respiratory and digestive systems, recovery rates are good, though some may be at a higher risk for future respiratory issues. Dogs who developed neurological symptoms due to canine distemper have a lowered chance of a full recovery, as neurological symptoms can develop up to 3 months after infection. 

    Due to the possibility of ongoing problems, it will be important to continue bringing your dog to your veterinarian for regular checkups. Symptoms for neurological issues can present up to 3 months after exposure and may worsen over time, so it is also important to keep an eye out for any changes and discuss them with your veterinarian. 

    Since there is no cure, the best way to protect your dog from canine distemper is by limiting their access to public areas where infected dogs may be. Vaccinations are available, and it is recommended that puppies are vaccinated within the first 4-6 weeks, and continue vaccinations until 14-16 weeks. After your dog has his initial vaccination, boosters can be done every 3 years. If your puppy survives distemper he will be immune for at least 20 months, and possibly for life. 

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    Canine Distemper Average Cost

    From 540 quotes ranging from $500 - $3,000

    Average Cost

    $1,800

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    Canine Distemper Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

    Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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    Ask a Vet

    dog-name-icon

    Trudis and Poopie

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    Shih Tzu

    dog-age-icon

    3 Months

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Mild severity

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    0 found helpful

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Mild severity

    Has Symptoms

    Nasal Discharge
    Nasal Discharge Tic

    I have puppies diagnosed with distemper and now on medication for 3 weeks. Tomorrow is their follow up check up. I was told by their Vet that we need to get rid of nasal discharge first then tomorrow on their follow up they will inject booster on them. And then after 2 weeks they will inject 5 in 1 anti distemper parvo etc. My question is it okay for them to receive a booster injection now that they have distemper already? And the 5 in 1 anti distemper parvo will it be okay to be injected after 2 weeks? Lastly is it okay for them to be together since they both have distemper but they keep on biting each other making them pant a lot.

    July 29, 2018

    Trudis and Poopie's Owner

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    0 Recommendations

    Any decision to vaccine is down to your Veterinarian, if they judge that Trudis and Poopie are fit enough to receive vaccination then that is their discretion; some pups will be too sick to vaccinate whilst others will be recovered enough. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

    July 30, 2018

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    poly

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    Labrador Retriever

    dog-age-icon

    6 Years

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Moderate severity

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    0 found helpful

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Moderate severity

    Has Symptoms

    Seizures
    Vomiting
    Loss Of Balance

    my dog is recently diagnosed with canine distemper.... she is 6.6 years old.. she is continuously vomiting from. last 13 days.. she is not eating any thing.. whenever i tried to give her something to eat she vomits within an hour...from tomorrow she had experienced 2 seizures.. what should i give her to eat so that she don't vomit... please tell me asap

    July 25, 2018

    poly's Owner

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    0 Recommendations

    Treatment for distemper is supportive and symptomatic, there is no cure for it only to try to get animals through the disease; there is nothing over the counter to manage seizures and you should try to feed small portions of boiled chicken and rice which is bland and better tolerated than other foods. You should be checking in regularly with your Veterinarian and ensuring that Poly is hydrated. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

    July 26, 2018

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    Poopie

    dog-breed-icon

    Shih Tzu

    dog-age-icon

    3 Months

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Mild severity

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    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Mild severity

    Has Symptoms

    "Runny Nose" "Little Twitching"

    I want to ask the timeline for 3 month shih tzu puplies diagnosed with distemper. Symptoms they have clear discharge from nose and eyes and little twitching when sleeping. Its been 3 weeks now and theyre both playful and drinks lot of water and they eat a lot and also gaining weight. I want to ask the timeline for 3 month shih tzu puplies diagnosed with distemper. Symptoms they have clear discharge from nose and eyes and little twitching when sleeping. Its been 3 weeks now and theyre both playful and drinks lot of water and they eat a lotand also gaining weight Lastly can i bathe them since its been 3 weeks now?

    July 25, 2018

    Poopie's Owner

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    0 Recommendations

    There is no definitive fixed timeline of the disease as each infection is different but symptoms normally present two weeks after infection and may last ten days to a few weeks, in around half of cases (depend on the literature quoted) neurological symptoms may present after three weeks or more even after other symptoms have resolved. As for bathing, it would be best to bathe Poopie two weeks after symptoms have resolved. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM www.msdvetmanual.com/generalized-conditions/canine-distemper/canine-distemper-overview www.vin.com/veterinarypartner/default.aspx?pid=19239&catId;=102899&id;=4952099 www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Canine-Distemper.aspx

    July 26, 2018

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    Wentz

    dog-breed-icon

    Boston Terriers

    dog-age-icon

    9 Weeks

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Moderate severity

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    1 found helpful

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Moderate severity

    Has Symptoms

    Lethargy
    Runny Nose
    Not Eating
    Bubbling Nose
    Frothy Drool

    I have Boston terrier puppy who I believe is nine weeks old he has been doing fine I’ve only had him for four days he’s usually very playful in a very active puppy but last night he started having some strange symptoms his nose was running like a tab and it began to bubble because there was so much it was clear at first and then I noticed sort of a yellow discharge afterwords and then his Eye started running and it had sort of a yellow discharge too. He also began to drool a lot in his drawer became frothy. From what I can see today His nose seems to be only running from one side and the eye on that same side has a little yellow discharge. I took him to an emergency vet and she said it could be anything from upper respiratory to distemper. He was also shaking pretty bad last night and I noticed from the first day that we got him that typically when he would sleep he would shake/ shiver. I would also like to add that today he is back to his playful self and his nose is running less. The vet last night gave him an antibiotic and he didn’t have a fever, diarrhea or vomiting. Could you please tell me your thoughts because I am worried that distemper is something I will be able to afford to treat.

    Dec. 13, 2017

    Wentz's Owner

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    1 Recommendations

    Puppies have poor underdeveloped immune systems and are prone to getting a variety of different symptoms; without examining Wentz I cannot say whether the cause is distemper or not but distemper normally present with fever along with ocular and nasal discharge. Antibiotic therapy may be the best course of action here as it would cover secondary infections from distemper and any possible bacterial respiratory infection; if he is back to his playful self, I would keep a close eye but return to a Veterinarian at the first sign of any symptom. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

    Dec. 13, 2017

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    Wendel

    dog-breed-icon

    Maltipoo

    dog-age-icon

    Slightly over 9 weeks

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Moderate severity

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    1 found helpful

    pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

    Moderate severity

    Has Symptoms

    Fluid In Abdomen
    Sneezing
    Coughing
    Dry Heaving
    Watery Eyes
    Labored And Difficult Breathing
    Wet Nose
    1 Seizure More Than 24 Hrs Ago
    Beginnings Of Pneumonia
    Unclear Intestinal Track In Xrays
    Slight Bloat

    My 9 week old maltipoo puppy that weighs about 1.75 - 2.15 pounds, Blue eyes, cream colored hair male has what we and the vet believe is distemper without me knowing from the beginning of purchasing him from a possible breeder/ past owner. He has just barely started seizures but not continuous just one last night. He has beginning signs of pneumonia. Also has fluid in the stomache along with had discomfort. We got him a subcutaneous shot for dehydration antibiotics along with pain killer. And is somewhat more responsive now. After his first seizure he was very unresponsive. He had labored breathing and coughing also looked confused or just not there. He does seem to go in and out of these symptoms the more the pain relief wares off. What is the likely hood of him surviving if i try to go further with treatment? If possible in a percentage range he is taking pretty well to the treatment the vet gave him. I urge for an answer asap i have a youthenasia appointment ready for him in less than 8 hrs. I would really like to know if i should go along with youthenasia.

    July 26, 2017

    Wendel's Owner

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    recommendation-ribbon

    1 Recommendations

    Distemper has a mortality rate of around 80% in puppies which decreases to 50% in older unvaccinated dogs. Each case is individual and any decision should be made with your Veterinarian as they will have a better picture of their overall response to treatment. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

    July 26, 2017

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    Canine Distemper Average Cost

    From 540 quotes ranging from $500 - $3,000

    Average Cost

    $1,800

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