Canine distemper is a very contagious - and potentially deadly - viral disease. The scariest part: There’s no cure.

What Is Canine Distemper? What Pet Parents Need To Know!

Canine distemper is a very contagious – and potentially deadly – viral disease that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. The scariest part about canine distemper: There’s no cure.

How Canine Distemper Spreads

Puppies and dogs can get canine distemper a few ways:

  1. Direct contact with an infected animal. Distemper-infected dogs can shed the virus for several months, putting other dogs around them at risk. It’s important to note that canines aren’t the only animals that can contract distemper. Wildlife – such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and mink – can also contract distemper. 
  2. Airborne. If an infected dog or animal coughs, sneezes, or barks, aerosol droplets are spread into the air. This puts nearby dogs at risk. 
  3. Infected objects. The virus can spread through infected surfaces and objects. (For example, sharing food and water bowls with an infected animal.)
  4. Placenta. Pregnant mother dogs can also pass the virus to her puppies through the placenta.

Dogs at the Highest Risk 

Veterinarians consider the distemper vaccine to be a core vaccination for a reason – all dogs are at risk. With that said, puppies younger than four months old and unvaccinated dogs are at the highest risk. 

Symptoms of Canine Distemper

Distemper-infected dogs experience a wide range of symptoms. 

Typically, the first symptom is watery to pus-like discharge coming from the eyes. Within three to six days of contracting the virus, most dogs also develop a fever. Some other symptoms: 

  • Nasal discharge
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

As the virus attacks the nervous system, infected dogs can also develop neurological symptoms, such as:

  • Circling behavior
  • Head tilt
  • Muscle twitches
  • Repetitive eye movements
  • Convulsions with increased salivation and chewing motions
  • Seizures
  • Partial or complete paralysis

Canine distemper can also cause “hard pad disease,” which means their paw pads can thicken and harden. 

Distemper is often fatal. Dogs that survive usually suffer permanent damage to their nervous system. 

If you suspect your puppy or dog has canine distemper, contact your vet immediately.


As I mentioned earlier, there is no cure for canine distemper. Rather, treatment involves trying to prevent secondary infections and control the many horrific symptoms.


  • When your furkid is a young puppy, make sure to get the full series of distemper vaccinations.
  • Before your puppy finishes his full round of puppy shots, avoid visiting dog parks, doggy daycares, pet stores, or other high-traffic areas. It’s also best to hold off on obedience class until your puppy is fully vaccinated and protected.
  • Keep distemper vaccinations up-to-date throughout your dog’s life. When it’s time for your dog’s booster shots, if you’re worried about over-vaccinating, talk to your dog about titers (AKA a blood test that checks the antibodies for a particular disease).
  • Keep your puppy or adult dog away from infected animals and wildlife.