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Dog Distemper: Vet-Approved Signs, Causes, & Treatment

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By Nicole Cosgrove

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Vet approved

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Lauren Demos

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Canine distemper is the name of a virus that can cause severe illness in dogs. The virus can also infect wildlife carnivore species, including foxes, mink, and racoons.

Signs of distemper can include respiratory, digestive, and neurological problems. Initially, infections tend to start with issues in the gastrointestinal tract, such as vomiting and diarrhea. As the disease progresses, dogs develop respiratory issues, including cough, nasal discharge, sneezing, and trouble breathing. These signs are then followed by severe neurological signs, involving weakness, disorientation, and seizures.

Distemper is highly contagious and most commonly impacts dogs that haven’t had their full vaccine series, which often means puppies, though adult dogs or senior dogs with a poor vaccination history can also be at risk. Prevention is primarily through vaccination, and treatment is supportive, though many dogs that get the illness will succumb to the disease, in spite of care.

In many countries, due to core vaccination campaigns, canine distemper has become very uncommon. However, it is still seen, and is always a cause for concern when encountered. Distemper is often fatal; however, patients that survive the disease can have lifelong neurological issues, in spite of recovering from the initial infection.

Read on to find out ways that distemper can be addressed!

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Signs of Canine Distemper

Coughing, fever, lethargy, diarrhea, vomiting, inappetence, or anorexia are all possible initial signs of the illness, but are not limited to distemper. If you see any of these signs and have concerns, contact your vet immediately!

As mentioned earlier, in the later stages of the infection, neurological signs can be seen, including weakness, tremors, twitching, and seizures. Unfortunately, distemper is often fatal.

chihuahua vomiting
Photo Credit: suchinan, Shutterstock

Similar Illnesses to Canine Distemper

Digestive issues, such as gastroenteritis or foreign bodies, may look similar to the initial stages of canine distemper. Again, if you have concerns about your dog, don’t hesitate to contact your vet as soon as you notice any issues. It is always better to be safe, rather than sorry!


Since distemper vaccination is a core part of a dogs’ vaccine series, dogs generally should be vaccinated for this illness. Therefore, those most at risk are dogs that have not been vaccinated.

Unvaccinated adult dogs or puppies that are not fully vaccinated should avoid other places where unvaccinated dogs might be (e.g., playgrounds, dog parks, etc.) to avoid contracting the virus.


Treatment is generally supportive, which means that there isn’t a specific treatment. Rather, specific clinical signs are treated in your pet. For example, if your dog is dehydrated, your vet might administer fluids via an intravenous (IV) catheter.

Generally speaking, all dogs will require hospitalization if they are infected with distemper virus, as it requires high levels of nursing care, intense observation, multiple supportive medications, as well as frequent lab checks to monitor and correct imbalances that the virus can cause.

close up of french bulldog dog being held by veterinarian doctor at vet clinic
Image Credit: Hryshchyshen Serhii, Shutterstock
  • IV nutrition or electrolyte therapy
  • Antibiotics
  • Pain relief
  • Anti-seizure medication

And remember—don’t ever give your dog or cat human medications, as they can actually be poisonous to pets!

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In Conclusion

The words “canine distemper” are words that no dog owner ever wants to run across! The best chance you can give your dog against it is by following your vet’s vaccination plan and not missing any dose. In the unfortunate event that your pup doesn’t seem right, speak to your vet immediately so that intervention can be started as soon as possible.

See also: How to Clean Dog Diarrhea from Carpet: Easy & Effective Methods

Featured Image Credit: EvitaS, Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

Authored by

Nicole is a lover of animals of all sizes but is especially fascinated with the feline variety. She’s the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese, and works every day so he can relax in the sunshine or by the fire. She’s always had a cat in her home and has spent countless days with others, observing behaviors and softening up even the grouchiest of the lot. Nicole wants to share her kitty expertise with you so you and your cat ...Read more

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