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Canine Distemper

Randy Walker DVM

About Distemper...

Canine Distemper is a very severe disease of dogs caused by a virus. Distemper is often fatal.

What Are The Symptoms Of Distemper ?

The first signs of Distemper are usually those of an upper respiratory infection (resembling a bad cold) with coughing, sneezing, runny eyes, and runny nose. Dogs with distemper also often have a loss of appetite and fever. Then, in over 50% of cases, the virus travels to the brain where it causes various types of seizures and other problems with the nervous system (such as muscle tremors). Many patients afflicted with Distemper will develop a severe and often fatal pneumonia (especially if not treated with antibiotics) secondary to the upper respiratory infection. In those patients who develop seizures from Distemper, death occurs in the majority of cases. Permanent brain and nerve damage is common in those dogs who recover from Distemper.

How Is Distemper Diagnosed?

Distemper is usually diagnosed on the basis of history, clinical signs, and appropriate lab tests.

How Is Distemper Transmitted?

Distemper is spread through exposure to bodily fluids such as saliva, mucous, or urine. As noted above, Distemper first attacks the upper respiratory tract then spreads to the nervous system in the majority of cases.

How Is Distemper Treated?

Being a viral disease, we have no medication that works directly against the Distemper virus itself and so the care for the Distemper patient is supportive. We give antibiotics to try to prevent pneumonia and treat seizures as needed with sedatives. In very severe cases some dog owners opt for euthanasia to put the patient out of their misery.

What Is The Prognosis For Distemper?

Although some patients do occasionally recover well enough to lead a relatively normal life, most dogs with Distemper will die from it.

How Common Is Distemper?

Through our preventive medicine programs, the incidence of Distemper nationwide has decreased in recent years. Distemper is still seen with regularity however, especially where there is a significant stray dog population such as in the Sun Lakes area.

How Is Distemper Prevented?

The best way to prevent Distemper is to have the dog properly vaccinated. At Sun Lakes Animal Clinic we recommend that all puppies be vaccinated initially for Distemper at 6 weeks of age and then have this vaccination boostered at 9, 12, 15, and 18 weeks of age. Most veterinarians follow a similar vaccination protocol and your veterinarian will tailor your puppy's vaccination program based on the local factors in your area. It is also important that the puppy be from a mother dog who is adequately vaccinated against Distemper since the first immunity toward Distemper that the puppy gets is that which is acquired from the mother through the first milk the puppy nurses. Adult dogs should receive a booster on their Distemper vaccination once-a-year.

Can My Cat Get Canine Distemper?

No. Cats cannot catch Canine Distemper. Cats do get a disease commonly called Feline Distemper but this is a totally different illness.

Can People Catch Distemper?



- Randy Walker DVM
Sun Lakes Animal Clinic
May 14,2004

"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened."
- Anatole France, 1921 Nobel Prize Speech -

Titlebar Image: The Gentle Doctor, 1937-38 by Christian Peterson (U84.179) - Iowa State University