Prevention is the key with this disease. Distemper in dogs is caused by a virus which is spread through most body fluids including saliva, urine, and blood. It is highly contagious and often deadly. At first, the disease mimics kennel cough, with goopy eyes, fever, runny nose, coughing, and tiredness the most common symptoms. Later signs of infection include seizures and paralysis. That’s why getting the vaccination against the virus is critical.


Canine distemper is a serious contagious disease caused by canine distemper virus (CDV), which attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurologic systems of dogs. It’s a highly transmissible virus that can also infect ferrets and many wild animals, including raccoons, skunks, minks, weasels, foxes, and coyotes.

Shockingly, the death rate for canine distemper virus can reach 50 percent, and animals that do recover are often left with permanent neurologic disabilities. There is no effective treatment, but virus-associated disease is largely preventable through vaccination.

Though the disease is less common than it was before the first effective vaccines became available in the 1960s, it is still present in wildlife populations that might have contact with domestic animals.

The incubation period of CDV is typically one to two weeks but can be up to five weeks. CDV is shed (spread) through all body secretions. It can also be carried on the hands and feet. Warm, dry, or sunny conditions will kill CDV, but it is resistant to cold and can survive in near-freezing, shady environments.

Signs and Identification

The first sign in infected dogs typically is a watery or whitish/greenish eye discharge. Additional initial signs include:

  • Fever
  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Lethargy (tiredness)
  • Reduced appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
In later stages, the disease affects the brain and nerves, and dogs may show the following signs:

  • Twitching, or “chewing gum” seizures, in which repetitive twitching of the dog’s jaw appears as if the dog is chewing gum
  • Seizures
  • Agitated behavior
  • Paralysis
The disease will vary in its symptoms and severity from patient to patient. Not all dogs will suffer neurologic signs and/or life-limiting neurologic impairments.

Diagnosis of CDV infection is difficult because there are few reliable tests for the disease and, in the initial stages, clinical signs can mimic those of other conditions, such as kennel cough. Diagnosis is frequently based on medical history and clinical signs.

Affected Breeds Sadly, canine distemper virus knows no breed limits. Biologically speaking, all breeds are susceptible.


Treatment is limited to supportive care: providing fluids, administering medications to reduce vomiting and diarrhea, administering antibiotics to prevent subsequent infections, such as pneumonia, and administering medication to control seizures. Severely affected animals may be euthanized to relieve their suffering.


This is by far the most important section for all dog owners to keep in mind.

Because of the importance of canine distemper and its severity, the CDV vaccine is considered a core vaccine by organized veterinary medicine, meaning that all dogs should be protected from this disease. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent illness and death associated with CDV infection.

The CDV vaccine is typically given in a combination vaccine that also protects against other serious diseases, such as canine parvovirus and canine adenovirus-2 infections.

Though vaccine schedules may vary, in general, all puppies should receive at least three doses of CDV vaccine between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks, followed by a one-year booster one year after the last dose. Thereafter, booster vaccinations are typically recommended every one to three years.

It is important to remember that a vaccination, even a routine one like a CDV vaccine, is a medical procedure not without its risks, however, the risk of CDV is considered far greater than that of a vaccine reaction. Nonetheless, owners should ask their veterinarians how to monitor their dogs for signs of a reaction. Vaccine reactions are rare, but knowing the associated signs is important.

Other forms of prevention include the following:

  • Keep puppies away from other dogs until the puppy vaccination series is complete (16 weeks).
  • Avoid unvaccinated and sick animals.
  • Keep your pet away from wildlife and stray animals.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.