Distemper in Dogs

A few decades ago, this lethal virus was responsible for thousands of dog deaths annually. Its easy to prevent with timely vaccination, but treatment remains a challenge.

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Canine distemper virus (CDV) was once a common killer of dogs and other animals. Cats, ferrets, and raccoons are also quite susceptible to contracting this virus, but dogs are considered the “reservoir” host. This means that CDV prefers to hang out in dogs, and they serve as a source of infection.

However, thanks to a very effective and readily available vaccine, distemper has become fairly rare in companion canines. Still, CDV is not eradicated, so it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of this virus. This is especially true if you are dealing with puppies in shelter or foster settings, “backyard-bred” dogs, or dogs that have been imported from other countries.

Currently, the most likely place that CDV is encountered is in rescued puppies in shelters. These pups often have multiple health issues and suppressed immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness. Many of these puppies have gastrointestinal (GI) parasites like roundworms and hookworms, and external parasites such as fleas, ticks, and mites. As a final insult, many have received poor nutrition prior to rescue.

All of these factors contribute to a poor immune response, so when a life-threatening virus makes the rounds, puppies are often the first infected. And when you house them in a stressful shelter, they become prime targets for opportunistic bacteria and viruses.

CDV is spread through respiratory secretions; sneezing and coughing are frequent modes of transmission. As you can imagine, in a shelter, there may be lots of both! This is exacerbated by the sort of crowded and stressful housing conditions that are often seen in rescues. Dogs can mount successful immune responses and fight the disease off, but it’s more difficult to do in a shelter.

The incubation period between exposure and the development of clinical signs in unprotected dogs may be as little as one week to as long as six weeks, with the majority of dogs showing signs within one to four weeks.

Making control of the contagion more difficult is the fact that dogs who are infected with distemper can start shedding the virus (be contagious) up to five days prior to the onset of clinical signs of the illness.

Signs of Distemper in Dogs

The clinical signs of CDV occur in stages and in three main body systems: the upper respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal tract, and the central nervous system.

Initially, a dog may show signs consistent with upper respiratory disease: coughing, sneezing, high fever, lethargy, and nasal and eye discharge. This is often mistaken for other canine respiratory tract infections like parainfluenza, influenza, and Bordetella.

At the same time, or slightly after the development of the respiratory signs, a dog may demonstrate GI upset (vomiting and diarrhea). Afterward, recovery may seem to occur.

Generally, however, within one to three weeks, neurological signs may develop. These can include myoclonus (a rhythmic jerking of a group of muscles), seizures, and behavior changes. “Gum chewing” seizures are a well-known manifestation of neurological distemper. They look exactly like they sound – the dog sporadically displays a rhythmic chewing motion.

It is important to know that the three stages of infection present in this order as a general rule; as with any rule, there are exceptions. Dogs can demonstrate only neurological symptoms or only upper respiratory symptoms. Thus, CDV should always be suspected in young dogs with symptoms in any of those systems.

The severity of these symptoms varies widely with the immune status of the dog. If a dog has a healthy immune system, she may successfully fight off the disease and clear it from her body with no long-term effects and minimal clinical signs. In some cases, there will be permanent damage to the enamel of the dog’s teeth, as well as marked thickening of the foot pads (called “hardpad disease”). If a dog is immunosuppressed in any way, the symptoms tend to hit her harder and have a higher risk of death.

Canine Distemper Diagnosis

There is no simple bedside test for canine distemper. In fact, diagnosing it can be a little tricky. Your veterinarian will start with a thorough physical examination (a “nose-to-tail” assessment including vitals like heart rate, weight, and rectal temperature) and a detailed history. This should include questions about where your puppy was adopted and any history of illness, as well as vaccine status.

If your vet suspects CDV, he may recommend one of several tests. Initially, he will likely run blood tests to check red and white blood cell counts, as well as organ function. In the early stages of infection, there may be mild anemia and a low lymphocyte (white blood cell) count. The veterinarian may also look at a blood smear, as dogs with CDV can have small “inclusion bodies” noted in their white blood cells. This is a rare finding and it’s unlikely that your veterinarian will see this, but it never hurts to look!

If your vet suspects concurrent pneumonia, x-rays of the chest will be recommended. For a thorough work-up, a urinalysis may also be conducted.

There are several specific laboratory tests that may be used to diagnose CDV. The most frequently utilized is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which works well to detect distemper in dogs who have not yet been vaccinated against distemper – but which does not reliably discriminate between a dog who is actually infected with distemper and a dog who has been vaccinated against it.

puppy with distemper

In February 2017, the veterinary diagnostic laboratory Idexx announced that it now offers a test that can differentiate between vaccinal strain interference and actual infection with CDV. In an infected dog, the level of replicating virus is exponentially higher than that found in a vaccine. The quantitative test that is now offered will give actual levels of the vaccine strain present, helping to distinguish between distemper vaccination and true infection.

Another test that your veterinarian may recommend is an immunofluorescence assay (IFA). The problem with this test is that it is generally only positive for the first three weeks after infection. Often, distemper isn’t suspected until the development of neurological signs. That may be beyond the period where it is reliably detected by IFA. As a result, this test gives positive results only in certain groups of patients.

Usually, a diagnosis of distemper can be confirmed through the combination of the dog’s history, veterinary examination, and PCR testing with blood, urine, or a swab from the eye (called a conjunctival sample). But owners should be aware that there are cases that elude certain confirmation.

Distemper Treatment for Dogs

Unfortunately, the only treatment for CDV consists of basic supportive care. It is a virus, so antibiotics are not warranted specifically to fight the distemper. Frequently, though, the illness can trigger secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia, in which case antibiotics will be indicated.

Medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) may be used to reduce fever and inflammation, as well as to help the dog feel better. Patients who aren’t eating or drinking will need IV fluids and IV antibiotics. If the dog isn’t eating, nutrition may be supplied via the placement of a feeding tube.

Pneumonia often develops in CDV patients. This is treated as above and with the addition of oxygen therapy, nebulization (a device that delivers medication via a mist that is inhaled into the lungs), and coupage (a physical therapy during which the dog’s chest is struck in a precise way with cupped hands). These treatments help loosen and clear secretions in the lungs.

If your dog is hospitalized, she will be kept in an isolation ward, as CDV is highly contagious and spread through sneezing and coughing.

Distemper Prognosis for Dogs

It is not hopeless if you have a puppy diagnosed with CDV, but the road to a complete recovery can be a long one, and a rosy outcome is never certain. Prognosis depends on the presence or absence of neurological signs like myoclonus and seizures.

If a puppy survives the initial infection, she may go on to live a fairly normal life – or she may experience persistent seizure activity and myoclonus indefinitely. These can sometimes be managed with anti-seizure medications, but the prognosis is very hard to predict.

Two other unsightly after effects of a distemper infection, enamel hypoplasia (no development of enamel on the teeth) and thickened nose and footpads (hyperkeratosis) also can persist for life.

Distemper Prevention

Finally, for the good news: Vaccinations for CDV are available at any general practice veterinary clinic and are highly effective.

There are two types of distemper vaccines: modified live and recombinant. Modified live vaccines (MLVs) offer the strongest protection from the disease. They also pose a tiny risk of conferring a CDV infection. However, according to veterinary virologist Dr. Melissa Kennedy at the University of Tennessee, the chances of this happening are “virtually nil” – the risk for reversion to an infective strain is so low that we take that very tiny risk over the much greater risk of CDV infection from other infected dogs.

The other type of CDV vaccine is a recombinant vaccine – one that has been produced through recombinant DNA technology. These vaccines have zero chance of ever reverting to a pathogenic strain, but historically were considered less effective than MLV vaccines. More recent studies have demonstrated that they are just as effective as the modified live vaccines, and thus are being used more frequently (and are what we use in my veterinary clinic).

Immunity takes about two weeks to develop after vaccination. The immune system must be given time to recognize the virus and then produce antibodies against it.

Because of the possibility that maternal antibodies can interfere with earlier vaccinations, puppies shouldn’t be considered safely immunized against distemper until they have received a vaccine when they are past 18 to 20 weeks of age (the age at which no more maternal antibody interference is possible).

Callejera’s story

canine distemper

Many veterinarians and veterinary technicians travel to third-world countries to help with preventive health clinics. These are invaluable services that protect both animal and human health worldwide. But sometimes, the big heartedness of these individuals leads to heartbreak.

That’s how Callejera (Spanish for “street dog”) came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. She was a stray presented to a preventive clinic. “Callie” quickly stole the heart of April, an American veterinary technician who was volunteering at the clinic. Callie was vaccinated and spayed, despite having a fever and some eye discharge. Despite the fact that Callie’s history was unknown, April elected to adopt Callie and bring her back to the United States.

Callie did well for about a week once the fever subsided. She easily won the devotion of all who knew her. Then she became very ill. She began to vocalize and “bite” at her legs – and even bit at April. She became lethargic and disoriented. Then her back legs began to jerk rhythmically, all day, every day. She cried in pain, day and night. Antibiotics, pain relief, and gentle, loving nursing care did not give her any relief. A number of possible diagnoses, including panosteitis and other infectious diseases, were entertained and ruled out.

After a few days and failed treatment, distemper was considered as a possible diagnosis, and tests confirmed this suspicion. The most likely explanation is that she already had been infected with distemper before she got vaccinated. Despite supportive care, Callie was suffering and only getting worse. She was showered with love and treats by April and the staff of the veterinary specialty clinic, and then she was peacefully euthanized. She drifted off in the arms of the person who loved her.

Callie’s story is sad but serves as an important reminder that dogs imported from other countries often bring with them a host of parasites and infectious diseases. Careful consideration should be given to the risks, as well as the possible heartbreak, of adopting dogs from third-world countries.

Catherine Ashe graduated the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. Dr. Ashe practiced ER medicine for nine years and now works as a relief veterinarian in Asheville, North Carolina, and loves the GP side of medicine.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Our fog Duke died of distemper November 6 2019. It started with what we thought to be an eye infection so we gave him antibiotics and eye drops he seemed to be getting better was running around outside playing then the seizures started and the lethergy.he died that morning he was weak and wouldn’t get up unless he was warm. It was so very very very awful. I pray that dog owners learn about this disease and won’t be blind sided like we were with it. We dearly kiss our Duke we raised him from a puppy he was 5 years old when he died. And we miss him very much every single day

    • Our puppy too met with same fate. He was strong and fine until He got the symptoms ultimately but fought for one week with continued seizures. Unbearable pain. We share your pain. His memories always and still bring tears.

  2. I am sorry to hear about the plight of your beloved companions. My adopted dog MObi was down with distemper, too. She was diagnosed with distemper last January 17, 2020. She was already in the neurological stage. She too had some problem with her left eye . Fortunately, she is still alive until now. We kept her in a vacant room inside the house so she won/t be able to infect my other dogs. . IT has been her home for the past 65 days. She will be staying there still for another 4 months till she won’t be shedding the virus. I keep her clean, feed her and dispose of her waste every single day. I change clothes every time I enter the room then change again when I leave. I have to do this because I have 4 more dogs in the house. My other two dogs are holed up in the kitchen while the other two are mobile.

    I am happy Mobi is alive but unfortunately she lost the vision of her left eye which was badly hit by the virus. Her optic nerves in the left eye were affected. Her right eye was also affected but it cleared up after 2 months but the left eye has a white mark on her iris or her pupil She just feels her way in the room and sniffs where her food is located. She looks like a happy 30 month old dog despite her limited mobility .. she recognizes my husband and I.. so that’s good enough for me. I hope she will be on the road to complete recovery soon.

    I thank the vet who opened her clinic for us even if it was way past clinic hours because we desperately needed somebody to look into her.

    • Our puppy Ava just got diagnosed with Distemper Virus. She was given medicine to take and the vets have done whatever they could do they told us. What home remedies or tips can you give us to help our 4 month old puppy stay strong. She currently is not drinking water or eating and is always sleeping.

      • Hi Jack,
        My dog Ryo who just turned 1 has been diagnosed with distemper as well. Unfortunately, the diagnosis was made late and the virus has already hit his nervous system.
        Our vet suggested a NDV spinal tap which gives Ryo a 20% chance at fighting this disease. He had the procedure done on tuesday, the 24th of March. We are now waiting and watching him and showering him with lots of love and care, hoping he is able to recover. Maybe you could speak to your vet abt this procedure.

        • You could try feeding her water and broths through a syringe. We have been doing the same with Ryo every couple of hours. He has started drinking water on his own yesterday but is refusing food, hence still has to be force fed broths through a syringe. Hope Ava makes it through. Sending lots of love and positive energy her way.

      • Very important, this might save your pet’s life.

        Recently our own pets got exposed to this virus through some rescue pups who had it. 2 of our pets had developed congestion, belly rashes, and fever.

        I realised after researching about it that vets do symptomatic treatment. There’s no knowing how far the disease will go and to what intensity the symptoms would show up. But there’s only one main thing that decides this, which is the dog’s own immunity. I read at many many places, research papers, case studies, people’s own experiences of having survived their pets through this disease, shelter people, few vets. It mainly comes down to giving high doses of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and Homeopathy medicines. (Multivitamins, liver tonic too will support. Also probably a high protein diet too.)
        But homeopathy and Vit C are life saving here.

        Our own vet prescribed us these Homeopathic medicines
        Distemperinum 30C
        Natrum Muriaticum 30C
        Arsenicum Album 30C
        4-5 drops of each to be given keeping gap of 15mins between each medicine type. Repeat these 3 times a day.

        Administer it directly through mouth -it should touch the gums, or tongue or atleast inner lips.
        Make sure no food or water is given before and after 30mins of it.

        For Vitamin C, I read people have administered doses even upto 20g a day for severely ill pets. Mostly gave 8g total a day, or atleast total 4-5g a day orally. Give it in gaps…like every 3hrs of 6hrs because body doesn’t store vit C, so continuous administration is must. For very serious cases IV fluids round the clock or injection (thrice a day) too have been given of ascorbic acid (vit c). It gave results in 1-2 days. Symptoms improved in 1-2 days.

        I read people’s stories of having saved their pets even from those final dying stages, neuro ones only just using Distemperinum, or Arsenicum Album or Vitamin C too. These are like the essential keys to it basically.
        Distemperinum can abort the disease in early stages. Vitamin C will push up the immune response, body will fight well and stop virus from entering CNS which could have caused neuro symptoms. Vit C also promotes cell regeneration, and without it cells die and damage is easily done. When a dog is fighting distemper their body is using up the vit C they have in body but it’s too less, so supplementation is of great help here. It could save a life.

        Right now I’m keeping them on Homeopathic Medication, though not able to do it very regular with the other 2. Because they are very stubborn and run away when we try to hold them and open their mouth. Some shelter people suggested us to add these homeo ones to their drinking water as homeopathy works on the concept of dna, energy, water memory. I’m not sure how much effective it remains after doing this though. Will be researching more.
        And I’ve been giving them daily 3-4g of Vit C as their symptoms are okay for now. This Vit C resolved the congestion of one of them, without antibiotics. I read somewhere that any disease needs expression, way to get out. Body, when it fights, it produces symptoms. Allopathy suppresses those symptoms, basically aborting body’s response to it. By suppressing our body’s response, the virus won’t stop. I read at few places that antibiotics when used they actually accelerated the disease to neuro stages. I observed the same with those rescue pups too, at that time we didn’t have this knowledge. We gave them antibiotics, and actually that really took it to neuro stage quickly. This virus will attacks multiple systems, we can stop it in gut and lungs but not in neuro stage using allopathy. But homeopathy basically helps to extinguish the disease way before, by letting it pass through the body. It’ll help the disease get over even before the neuro stage or atleast help virus find it’s expression in other places in the body, so that the CNS is spared. Also with homeopathy the neuro stage too has been reversed. 3 days back one of our pet had started developing chewing gum fits, for short span. That bery same day we had given him his antibiotics. Luckily we had our Homeopathy medicines by that time. And luckily I came across an article that mentioned that antibiotics accelerates it into neuro. So I immediately stopped antibiotic, started the homeo and vit C. It’s been 3 days. He’s doing fine. No twitching. I don’t know how long we will have to continue this. But I guess… I’ll be doing this for atleast an year now. Also we are planning of starting them on Wheatgrass (we would be growing them using wheat seeds and also barley grass using barley), giloe amd chicken soup. Due to lockdown it’s getting difficult to find chicken though. But it’s another essential thing. Not for puppies I suppose. Ours are 9months old, 6yrs and 8yrs.

        • One of my dog is infected with distemper
          And she is in neurological stage but she is eating biscuits drinking water taking milk is she is 2.5 year old pls reply me whether she will save or not

          • As much as I have read, dogs have survived even from neuro stages too. But you need to make sure that your pet’s immune system is up. You need to support them through it. I have also read stories where the pets had developed hind leg paralysis but in a month’s time they got back to being normal.

            I read people giving their pets coconut water mixed in water, chicken soup, vitamin c in mega doses when pet is very ill though very long term usage might cause kidney stones in long run, but for the time being while your pet is fighting it…vit c supplementation will hugely benefit.
            Give very healthy protein rich diet.

            Homeopathy medicine Arsenicum Album 30C and Distemperinum will hugely help. Try to find Distemperinum quick and give it.

    • Did you isolate her in your house or hospitalized her? My 4 month old pug is diagnosed by same virus. Vet told us to isolate her in house and give self care but I don’t know how to do it. Can u plz give us a little advice 🙏

  3. Hi
    My puppy has distemper too and the vet has asked us to find distemperinum for him
    Is there any way I can get this medicine from somewhere
    Because it’s lockdown and it’s difficult to travel to Delhi and I live in noida

  4. Gd evening
    My dog is too suffering from distemper… every 2 to 3 hours, she is getting an attack of seizure…and her legs lower abdominal legs are not working as a result she is not able to walk or move.. it’s been the day 15th today after all those mild convulsions..but today she was spotted with 3 big nd severe convulsions… I live in valsad… nd there are no high facility vet hospitals here… is there any way she can recover from …

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