How To Spot Distemper in Dogs & Treat It

Four minutes
Apr 06, 2023

Of all the common dog diseases your furry friend may be exposed to, distemper can be one of the most severe. However, distemper can be easily prevented. Read on to learn more about canine distemper symptoms, treatment, and how you can protect your dog from it.

What Is Distemper in Dogs?

Distemper is a highly infectious viral disease that can be found in domestic dogs as well as other wild animals like foxes, wolves, skunks, and raccoons.1 It’s a systemic disease that can affect the gastrointestinal system, respiratory system, central nervous system, and the optic nerves.1

As far as what causes distemper in dogs, the canine distemper virus (CDV) is to blame. This virus’s genetic material is stored in ribonucleic acid (RNA), similar to the measles, and starts to replicate itself when inside a host’s lymphatic tissue of the respiratory tract.1

Unfortunately, this disease can be fatal, and dogs that survive may experience chronic and irreparable nervous system damage.2

How is distemper spread?

Distemper is mainly spread through aerosol droplets or direct contact with infected animals.1,3 Coughing, barking, and sneezing can spread the virus as can sharing water bowls, toys, food, or bedding with an infected dog or animal. While the virus can be fairly unstable outside of a host, infected dogs can shed the virus for several months.1

What dogs are at risk of canine distemper?

Distemper can be a scary disease, and you may want to know if your dog is at risk. While all dogs can be at risk for distemper, dogs that aren’t vaccinated against the virus as well as puppies younger than 4 months old can be at an increased risk.2

Distemper Symptoms in Dogs

The clinical signs of distemper in dogs can vary and may progress to a couple of different stages. Symptoms of distemper in the acute phase may include:1,3

  • Fever
  • Discharge from the nose and eyes
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Respiratory problems including coughing and pneumonia

After the acute phase, dogs may develop hyperkeratosis (read: a hardening) of their footpads or nose. Secondary bacterial infections are also a risk since the dog’s immune system may be compromised by the distemper virus.1

Some dogs may develop neurological symptoms as the disease progresses such as:1

  • Muscle twitching
  • Seizures
  • Head tilting
  • Circling
  • Paralysis

The disease may run its course in as little as 10 days, or it could take weeks to months for any neurological signs to appear.1 Some dogs may experience a mild case of distemper without any neurological signs while others could experience it more severely. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict if an infected dog will develop neurological symptoms.1

Treatment for Distemper in Dogs

Distemper signs can be confused with other infectious diseases like parvovirus or even poisoning, so veterinarians typically diagnose distemper through a clinical evaluation as well as laboratory tests.1

Because distemper is incurable, treatment usually involves supportive care to reduce symptoms, and the prevention of secondary infections with antibiotics.2,3 Supportive care can include treatments to help relieve gastrointestinal discomfort, provide nutrition and hydration support, control neurological symptoms, and/or reduce the risk of seizures. Infected dogs are typically separated from other pooches to prevent the spread of infection.

The cost to treat distemper can vary based on a dog’s health and the severity of the disease, and could range from $500 – $2,000 or more depending on the length of hospitalization.4 The virus strain and the strength of the infected dog’s immune system factor into any chronic conditions and their survivability rate.

How To Prevent Canine Distemper

Fortunately, the best offense is a good defense and there are distemper vaccines that can help protect dogs against the virus. Puppies are usually given multiple vaccine rounds in their first 16 weeks and then adult dogs are given booster vaccines on a regular basis to ensure continued protection.1 Here are some tips that can help prevent a distemper infection:2

  • Keep your dog separate from any infected (or suspected infected) dogs and wildlife.
  • Be careful socializing your puppy or unvaccinated dog in places where other dogs gather, as this can put your pup at an increased risk of potential infection.
  • If you have a pet ferret, get them vaccinated as they can carry the distemper virus.
  • Make sure your dog is up-to-date on their distemper vaccinations no matter what age they are.

Pet Insurance May Help Offset Distemper Treatment Costs

If your dog is diagnosed with distemper, it can be a costly battle and recovery. With a dog insurance policy from award-winning5 MetLife Pet, you may be able to get reimbursed for covered expenses such as hospital stays, diagnostic testing, prescribed medications, or treatment for chronic conditions.6 You can even add on optional coverage to help cover regular vet visits and distemper vaccinations.7 See how you could be able to save money on your dog’s health care by getting your free quote today.

Protect your Dog

Coverage in 3 Easy Steps

1 “Canine Distemper,” Merck Veterinary Manual

2 “Canine distemper,” American Veterinary Medical Association

3 “Distemper in Dogs,” VCA Animal Hospitals

4 “Distemper in Dogs,” PetCoach

5 “2023 Pet Insurance of the Year Award” Winners, Pet Independent Innovation Awards

6 Provided all terms of the policy are met. Application is subject to underwriting review and approval. Like most insurance policies, insurance policies issued by IAIC and MetGen contain certain deductibles, co-insurance, exclusions, exceptions, reductions, limitations, and terms for keeping them in force. For costs, complete details of coverage and exclusions, and a listing of approved states, please contact MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC.

7 Available at an additional cost.

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