Distemper in Dogs

Distemper, also known as Canine Distemper (CDV) is a highly contagious viral disease caused by the Paramyxoviridae virus. This causes respiratory, neurological and gastrointestinal complications in dogs.

The primary mode of transmission is by inhalation. Secondary modes include exposure to infected nasal and ocular discharges.

Once in the body, the virus first colonizes the tonsil and bronchi, starts multiplying rapidly and spreads throughout the body. This usually takes up-to 8 days and clinical signs observed starts with respiratory signs (such as sneezing, coughing, nasal and ocular discharges, fever) and gradually progresses into neurological signs such as seizures and Hyperesthesia.

Distemper is known to affect canines, wild carnivores and other species. Distemper virus is very similar to the Human measles virus. Being species specific, there have been no reported incidents of humans and cats getting infected by CDV.

Distemper affects dogs of all ages, young dogs especially puppies are at high risk, immuno compromised dogs, senior dogs, unvaccinated puppies and dogs, pregnant bitches, dogs living in unhygienic or contaminated environments are susceptible to this disease. However, with regular vaccinations adult dogs have a better chance of resistance.


Distemper is caused by Paramyxoviridae virus. Primary mode of transmission is inhalation. Other ways of getting infected are direct contact with nasal and ocular discharges, direct contact with the infected animal, mutual grooming (involving saliva), from contamination (environmental and objects). Pregnant bitches can pass this virus to her puppies.

Clinical Signs & Symptoms

The incubation period is between 5 to 7 days. Canine distemper virus can produce two distinct syndromes, either simultaneously or separated by a few weeks, the chief medical complaints can vary.

In Acute form: Respiratory, symptoms are:
› Depression
› Anorexia (Loss of Appetite)
› Rhinitis (sneezing)
› Coughing
› Recurrent nasal discharges / runny nose
› Recurrent ocular discharges
› Pyrexia (Fever)
› Dehydration
› Vomiting
› Diarrhea (Loose stools)

In the Chronic form: Neurologic, the disease may occur in conjunction with the acute form or be seen up to 30 or more days later. Common signs are
› History of chronic upper respiratory disease, sometimes within the last 30 days
› Seizures
› Behavioral changes
› Hyperesthesia (Increased sensitivity to pain)
› Coma or Death (up to 90% mortality)


› Seizures: If the patient recovers from the neurologic phase of the disease, the patient may have seizures for its lifetime.
› Dental Lesions: In juvenile patients, the high fever can produce enamel lesions to the adult teeth, causing breaks in the surface of the enamel on the teeth.
› Hard Pad: Some juvenile pets will have hardening of their pads secondary to the virus.


Veterinarians will require a complete history of your dog which includes medical history, vaccination records, existing health concerns, current and previous medications, onset of symptoms, diet and exercise routine and any information which can help in establishing a correct diagnosis. Diagnosis is done with a combination of tests. These include routine lab examinations and special tests which can detect the presence of the virus. They are:

› Physical examination
› Complete Blood Count (CBC)
› CDV Blood Titers – This is a clinical diagnostic test for the presence of antibodies in the blood against the distemper virus. However, any vaccinated animal will have some positive titer level to CDV.
› CDV Titers (Cerebral Spinal Fluid) – This test of the cerebral spinal fluid for antibodies against CDV can suggest a distemper viral infection of the central nervous system.
› Conjunctival Smear test – As with many viral infections, CDV does leave intracellular remnants called inclusion bodies in specific cells of the body. With CDV, inclusion bodies can be found in the cells of the inner eyelid (the conjunctiva) during the acute upper respiratory phase of the infection. Observation of these inclusion bodies suggests CDV infection.


CDV can be successfully treated but this depends on the severity of the infection.

Treatment includes:
› Antibiotic medications
› Drugs to treat secondary illnesses and diseases
› Fluid therapy
› Use of IV fluids
› Cough suppressants
› Inhalant medications to ease breathing
› Antibacterial medications
› Constant and regular cleaning of nasal and ocular discharges with a damp wipe
› Anti-inflammatory medications (for joint pains, lameness, stiffness)
› Drugs to treat Conjunctivitis (eye drops / ophthalmic medications)


Fortunately, Distemper is preventable. Vaccination is the single most effective way to prevent this from happening. All puppies should receive and complete the initial vaccination series. The first vaccine should be given between 6 to 8 weeks of age and repeated every 3 to 4 weeks. You can discuss the vaccinations with your veterinarian. All vaccines should be given yearly (boosters) to maintain your dogs immunity. A stronger immunity system can ward off the infection and will also help in a speedy recovery.

Home Care

Home care should aim at improving the condition. Treatments can range between 2 to 4 months. If you observe any behavioral changes, or if the condition does not improve, please contact your veterinarian.

› Isolate your pet immediately once the diagnosis confirms Distemper.
› Vaccination is the single most effective way to prevent the infection.
› It is mandatory to provide a stress-free environment for your dog. Keep water and food bowls within reach. Avoid physical activity. Keep your dogs away from any noise and commotions.
› You have to administer and monitor all prescribed medicine as directed by your veterinarian.
› Do NOT travel with your dog.
› Do NOT allow your dog to roam freely. This works two ways, firstly if the pet is infected, it greatly reduces the chances of risk of exposure to other pets and humans and secondly in-case of a healthy pet, it reduces the chances of contracting the infection.
› Use of environmental disinfectants is recommended. Prompt disposal of any and all materials after use is suggested.
› Routine and regular checkups to access the progress, further tests may be advised.
› Humans, especially children, pregnant women and ones handling infected pets need to exercise caution. Wear gloves when dealing with a pet, cleaning the litter boxes, disposing any and all contaminated materials, garbage disposals etc. A thorough wash of hands is advised. Practice hygiene.
› A well planned, healthy, nutritious and balanced diet is recommended. Try to avoid raw foods. Veterinarians usually suggest a low protein diet for liver and kidney recovery.
› Dogs which have recovered from distemper may have long term effects like seizures and known Central nervous system (CNS) disorders. These may show up at later stage.

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