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New Distemper Health Alert

Distemper in Dogs

NOTE: This article was originally published in February, 2012. We have since updated it to reflect the importance of prevention of distemper in dogs.

As a result of seeing a higher-than-usual number of distemper outbreaks in 2012, the Arizona Humane Society (AHS) issued a community health alert to all pet owners. States such as Florida, Ohio and Georgia have also seen earlier-than-usual occurrences of this dangerous disease and extra caution is urged nationally.  Typically, distemper outbreaks arise in the spring due to an increased number of puppies, however in 2012 (and subsequent years), signs of the disease are appearing much earlier.

Two New Strains of Distemper

There is evidence to suggest that two new strains of distemper indigenous to Europe have made their way to the U.S. While the typical incubation period for distemper is typically 1-2 weeks, the new strains may have even longer incubation periods.

Worse, while traditionally distemper was thought of as a disease that primarily affected puppies who have not had all of their “puppy” shots; these strains are now appearing in elderly pets with unconfirmed vaccination histories.

How Distemper is Spread

The virus is highly contagious and can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected dog or wildlife, as well as through shared food and water bowls. Airborne transmission is also a concern, particularly in areas where infected animals have been in close proximity.

Canine distemper is primarily spread through respiratory secretions and bodily fluids of infected animals. Once inhaled, the virus moves to the lymph nodes where it begins reproducing. Eventually it spreads to the blood and the cell lining of the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital and central nervous system of infected animals.

Dogs are the primary species affected by distemper, with domestic dogs, especially unvaccinated puppies, being the most susceptible. However, other carnivores, such as ferrets, raccoons, and foxes, can also contract and spread the virus. Wildlife populations, in particular, can serve as reservoirs for distemper, posing a risk to domestic dogs that come into contact with these carriers. Vaccination remains a critical tool in preventing the spread of distemper and protecting susceptible populations.

What are the first signs of distemper in dogs?

Canine distemper presents itself through a series of initial signs that can vary in severity. In its early stages, dogs infected with the distemper virus may exhibit symptoms reminiscent of a common cold, including nasal discharge, sneezing, and coughing. As the virus progresses, more serious indications become apparent, such as fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite.


Distemper can also affect the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems, leading to vomiting and diarrhea. In some cases, dogs may display neurological symptoms like twitching, seizures, or lack of coordination.

Symptoms of Distemper

Symptoms vary from dog to dog, but often include:

  • discharge from eyes/nose
  • coughing
  • lethargy
  • lack of appetite
  • callusing of nose/foot pads
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • seizures

How can I treat my dogs distemper at home?

Given the potentially devastating consequences of distemper, vigilance and preventive measures, including vaccination, are essential for protecting canine health.

Prompt recognition of the initial symptoms of distmper is crucial, as is the importance of seeking veterinary attention. Early diagnosis and intervention significantly improve the chances of successful treatment and recovery. This is not a virus that you should attempt to treat without a veterninarian’s expertise.

Remember, prevention through routine vaccinations is the best way to protect dogs from distemper. Regular veterinary check-ups and vaccinations are essential components of responsible pet care.

Prevention of distemper

  • Vaccinate your pet: It is imperative that the community is diligent in updating their pet’s vaccinations as directed by their veterinarian.
  • Use Caution in Communal areas: People must be very cautious when taking their pets to communal areas such as dog parks or other public areas with unknown dogs. Unvaccinated dogs of all ages are at high risk for contracting the disease.
  • Distemper is a community problem and it is the responsibility of pet parents to vaccinate and protect their dogs.

What Kills the Distemper Virus?

The distemper virus, known as Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), is relatively fragile and can be susceptible to various environmental factors and disinfectants. It is important to note that while some agents can help in reducing the viability of the virus, prevention through vaccination is the most effective approach.

Common disinfectants such as:

can be effective in deactivating the virus on surfaces. Additionally, environmental factors such as sunlight and drying can contribute to the natural breakdown of the virus.

However, it’s crucial to understand that once a dog is infected with distemper, there is no specific antiviral treatment. Veterinary care focuses on supportive measures to manage symptoms and boost the dog’s immune response.

Vaccination, on the other hand, provides a highly effective means of preventing distemper in dogs, making it a critical component of responsible pet care. Regular vaccinations help ensure that dogs develop immunity to the virus and are better equipped to resist infection.

If You Suspect Your Dog has Distemper

If you suspect that your dog may have distemper, it is crucial to seek veterinary attention promptly. Distemper can be a serious and potentially fatal disease, and early intervention improves the chances of successful treatment and recovery. Here are some steps to take if you suspect your dog has distemper:

Isolate Your Dog:

  • Keep the suspected infected dog away from other dogs to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

Contact Your Veterinarian:

    • Call your veterinarian immediately and describe the symptoms you’ve observed. Follow their guidance on whether to bring the dog in for an examination or if there are any initial steps you should take.

    Veterinary Examination:

    • A veterinarian will conduct a thorough examination of your dog and may recommend diagnostic tests such as blood tests to confirm the presence of the virus.

    Follow Veterinary Recommendations:

      • Follow the veterinarian’s advice regarding treatment options and supportive care. Treatment may involve managing symptoms, providing fluids, and addressing secondary infections.

      Vaccination History:

      • Be prepared to provide information about your dog’s vaccination history. Dogs that are not vaccinated or are under-vaccinated may be more susceptible to distemper.

      Isolation and Hygiene:

      • Practice good hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the infected dog, and clean and disinfect the environment.

      Monitor Other Pets:

        • If you have other dogs or pets, monitor them closely for any signs of illness. Distemper is highly contagious, and early detection is key to preventing its spread.

        Treatment of distemper

        If your pet is diagnosed with the distemper virus a thorough cleaning of your home with disinfectant is necessary.  Currently, there is no specific treatment or cure for the distemper virus, nor is there a fool-proof test to confirm or deny the diagnosis.

        AHS is taking every precautionary measure available to ensure the health of the animals in our care and in the community. In addition, AHS is working closely with their vaccination representatives as new information becomes available while also working in conjunction with Oklahoma State University regarding a research study so they can gain more information on the deadly virus.

        Can a Dog Survive Distemper?


        Learn more about disease in pets: