What you need to know.

This is a viral disease that affects a wide range of mammal families including domestic and wild species of dogs, foxes, wolves, pandas, ferrets, raccoons, felines as well as some primates.

How does your dog catch the virus?

Dog catch the virus by contact with other dogs that are already infected or from the wildlife. The infection is transmitted by direct contact with the sick animal through licking and grooming each other. They can also catch it by standing next to the sick animal while coughing. They can also catch it by sharing plates, water points or groomers that have been infected by the sick dog.

How long does it take before the signs present;

In dogs the distemper virus takes between 3-21 days. This may be longer depending on season, weather patterns and environmental temperatures.

The health status of the dog also affects the incubation period. Healthy and vaccinated dogs may take longer to present clinical signs.

What are the clinical signs of Canine distemper;

The clinical sign present in three forms;

1. Respiratory form; this is the initial stage of the infection. The dogs develop watery to pus like discharge from the eyes. This is followed by fever, nasal discharge, and a cough.

2. The gastrointestinal form; as the disease progresses, the dog develops inappetance, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. At this stage the dog become very weak, dehydrated and sometimes recumbent. They also develop crust on the nose and foot pads as well. The dog become immobile and just lay down.

3. The neurologic form; this is the terminal stage of the disease. The dog develops seizures, incoordination and finally succumb to the disease. There is hyperkeratinization of footpads and nose because of effects on nervous tissue.

How is the disease diagnosed?

Most of the time diagnosis is by associated clinical signs and history of the dogs and wildlife contact. The most definitive diagnosis is by virus isolation in a laboratory setting. The veterinarian will take samples and submit to the lab for diagnosis. There are instances when rapid test kits are available and this can pick the disease early and help save the dog. But best is sampling blood and taking to a proper laboratory for testing.

Can Canine Distemper be treated;

Like other viral conditions, the distemper virus cannot be treated. The dog is put under supportive care but once the neurologic state develops, it is not easy to treat the condition. Efforts are aimed at preventing secondary bacterial infection, prevent dehydration by giving lots of fluids, reduce vomiting and stop the diarrhea. The risk of environmental contamination complicates the treatment as the disease can spread very fast.

Prevention of the disease;

This can only be achieved by vaccination young puppies at 8 weeks and a repeat at 12 weeks. Dogs older than 12 weeks can be vaccinated at any age and repeated after 3-4 weeks. A booster vaccine dose is recommended every year to ensure antibody titer levels are adequate to give your dog enough protection.

Isolate suspected cases and do not allow other dogs to get into close contact with the feeding and watering utensils. Wash them separately and disinfect the kennels properly.

Can dogs recover from the virus infection?

Yes, the dog can recover from Distemper virus infection. This is highly dependent on the dog’s immunity and state of health. The strain of virus also affects the recovery period. Some dogs recover quickly especially if vaccinated regularly. While others can take between 6-8 weeks to recover fully.

Dogs can live with the virus up to 10 days before neurological signs develop. So while under treatment, they need to be isolated and under care until the vet is sure the dog is recovered. A dog under recovery may still shed the virus to the environment for 2-3 months.

Can dogs get distemper when vaccinated?

Yes. Vaccines offer protection but are not 100% efficient. However, vaccinating your dogs regularly reduces chances of getting severe disease and can help them recover quickly.

What happens when a dog with distemper bites human, can the human catch the virus?

When a dog with distemper infection bites human, all protocols for managing a dog bite should be observed and the victim taken to hospital. Good news, human cannot catch the distemper virus. So main focus is on other infections like rabies but not distemper.

Does distemper cause aggression in dogs?

Viral infections cause inflammation to the brain. A condition called encephalitis. It is this inflammation to the brain that results in aggression. Dogs with distemper infection can results in aggression so should be handled with a lot of care.

Side effects of canine distemper virus to watch out for after recovery;

The dog may develop permanent damage to the respiratory system resulting in difficulty breathing. There may be damage to the vital organs like kidneys and liver and the dog may later show symptoms of failure of such organs. This is common where the supportive therapy was not adequate of was not done at all. The effects on the nervous system my cause blepharitis with clouding of eyes. This may progress to permanent blindness in both eyes. The hype keratinization of footpads and nose may persist even after the dog has recovered.


Canine distemper is a deadly disease and has no cure. It can only be prevented by vaccination. Supportive treatment should be prioritized as this reduces deaths and side effects of the virus.

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