Distemper in dogs
- Distemper is a disease caused by a virus. The virus spreads easily between dogs.
- It causes a wide range of symptoms including a cough, runny eyes and nose, diarrhoea, high temperature, thickened pads, tremors and fits.
- Many dogs will not survive distemper and sadly, some become so poorly they have to be put to sleep.
- Vaccination has meant we now rarely see distemper in the UK, but it does still occur in areas with many unvaccinated dogs.
- Vaccination is an excellent way to protect your dog from distemper.
What is distemper in dogs?
Distemper is a virus that spreads easily between unvaccinated dogs. The virus spreads in the air, via bodily fluids (such as urine and saliva) and can live in the environment where an infected dog has been. Young dogs are most at risk of catching distemper.
The distemper virus attacks several different organs in the body – the guts, heart, immune system, lungs, brain and nerves. It causes a variety of symptoms ranging from mild cold-like signs to seizures and death.
The symptoms of distemper vary a lot depending how much resistance (immunity) the infected dog has and which organs are affected. Dogs can show any combination of the symptoms listed below over a few weeks:
- High temperature (fever)
- Runny eyes and nose (first watery then pussy)
- Low energy (lethargy)
- Loss of appetite
- Thickened paw pads and nose (hard pad)
- Fits and seizures.
Usually distemper symptoms start with runny eyes, a cough and diarrhoea, after 3-4 weeks hard pads, hard nose and neurological signs (fits, tremors, seizures) develop. Some dogs die during the early stages of distemper, but others are poorly for several weeks and can eventually recover.
There is no treatment available to kill the distemper virus. Instead, your vet will use medicines to reduce symptoms and supportive care to help your dog fight the virus. It can take several weeks to recover. Sadly, some dogs die in the early stages of distemper or are left with permanent brain damage. Some dogs become so poorly that they have to be put to sleep.
Fortunately, distemper is easy to prevent with vaccination - have your puppy vaccinated before you let them mix with other dogs or go out into public spaces. Booster vaccinations will then keep your dog safe from distemper throughout their life.
Distemper is much rarer than it used to be in the UK, but an unvaccinated puppy is still at risk of getting distemper today.
Treatment for a poorly pet can become very expensive. Consider insuring your dog as soon as you get them, before any signs of illness start. This will ensure you have all the support you need to care for them.
It’s also very important to speak openly to your vet about your finances, the cost of treatment, as well as what you think is right for your dog. There are often several treatment options so if one doesn’t work for you and your pet then the vet may be able to offer another.
Published: June 2019
Did you find this page useful?
Tell us more
Thank you for your feedback
PetWise Pet Health Hub – brought to you thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery
Written by vets and vet nurses. This advice is for UK pets only.
Illustrations by Samantha Elmhurst