Distemper in dogs

Distemper in dogs is caused by a virus. It’s a very contagious and serious disease that often results in life-long problems or death. There is no cure for distemper in dogs but luckily there’s a vaccine available that gives excellent protection. 

Distemper can affect dogs of any age but puppies and unvaccinated dogs are most at risk. Dogs most often catch the virus from an infected animal through sneezing, coughing or barking. It can cause a variety of symptoms affecting different areas of the body. Thanks to the vaccination, distemper is now rare in the UK but there have been some sporadic cases in the past few years.



What is distemper in dogs?

Distemper in dogs is caused by an extremely infectious virus. This virus has a mortality rate of up to 50% in adult dogs and 80% in puppies.

  • Distemper is spread through the air, when an infected animal sneezes, coughs or barks. This is the most common route of exposure. It can also be spread through shared bowls or items.
  • Infected animals can be contagious for months.
  • Dogs that are pregnant can spread the virus to their unborn puppies.
  • The virus attacks the immune systems first and then different parts of the body: the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems.
  • Distemper virus can affect other animals too, such as ferrets, foxes and other mammals.
  • Some dogs can produce an effective immune response to the virus and have minimal signs.
  • Dogs with more severe clinical signs can survive the virus, but they are often left with permanent damage to the nervous system.


Joii vets are available 24 hours a day; if you have any questions about distemper or vaccinations, download the app and call us now.



Symptoms of distemper in dogs

Signs of distemper vary, depending on what area of the body is affected and how well the immune system responds.

Common signs of distemper include:

  • Runny eyes and nose
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Reduced appetite
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Neurological signs such as lack of coordination, head tilt, walking in circles, jaw-chewing movements, seizures and paralysis. These signs most often start 1-6 weeks after the other signs have started to resolve.
  • Permanent tooth damage can happen if puppies are infected before they get their adult teeth.

Distemper can also be called hard pad or footpad disease, as it can cause a dog’s nose and paw pads to thicken.


distemper in dogs
Runny eyes and nose can be a sign of distemper



Are some dogs more at risk of distemper than others?

Any dog can catch distemper but some are at higher risk:

  • Puppies under 4 months old
  • Non-vaccinated dogs
  • Dogs in rescue kennels or shelters due to large numbers in close contact

The virus attacks the immune system, leading to a weaker immune response. Because of this, dogs with distemper are at a higher risk of other infections. Especially those who are elderly or have underlying health problems.



How is distemper diagnosed in dogs?

The distemper virus may be initially suspected based on your dog’s clinical signs, such as a high fever alongside symptoms in different areas of the body, including the nervous system.

Further diagnostics include:

  • Blood tests: low levels of lymphocytes and signs of the virus may be seen on smears
  • Urine tests
  • Analysis of spinal fluid
  • Analysis of swabs from the eyes and nose


Vet treatment

What’s the treatment for distemper in dogs?

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for distemper in dogs. The disease is managed by supportive care and treating the symptoms. Dogs with mild gastrointestinal symptoms sometimes recover without any treatment, whereas dogs with neurological signs will need urgent and intensive care.

Supportive care includes:

  • Hospitalisation and fluids to help dehydration
  • Medications to control vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Pain relief
  • Anti-seizure medication
  • Antibiotics for secondary infections


Home treatment

How to look after a dog with distemper at home

If you suspect your dog has distemper, seek help from a vet immediately.

Isolation of dogs with distemper is essential to prevent spread. It’s advised to keep your dog isolated for at least two weeks. However, dogs with neurological signs can be contagious for months afterwards.

How to help your dog at home:

  • Give any medication as advised by your vet
  • Encourage your dog to drink and eat. A special diet may be recommended by your vet to ensure your dog receives optimal nutrition.
  • Make sure your dog has a quiet and safe space to rest
  • Probiotics can be helpful for dogs with gastrointestinal problems
  • Clean any discharge from their eyes and nose regularly to prevent a crust from building up
  • Exposure to a steamy room can help with irritation of the respiratory tract



Tips on how to prevent distemper in dogs

The best way to protect your dogs from distemper is through vaccination. This should be given twice as a puppy and then as a regular booster ongoing throughout their life. The vaccine for distemper is usually included in the “core vaccines” in the UK.

  • Your vet can titre test your dog’s antibodies against distemper if you are concerned about frequent vaccines, though this does not guarantee absolute protection.
  • Keep your unvaccinated puppy safe: do not allow them on the ground in public places and avoid contact with unvaccinated dogs.
  • Distemper is common in some areas of Europe; take extra precautions when travelling abroad with your dog.
  • Avoid contact with infected domestic and wild animals.


Is my family at risk of catching distemper?

Though it is closely related to the virus causing human measles, distemper does not spread to humans.


When to worry

When you should be worried about distemper in dogs

Seek help from a vet if:

  • Your dog has been in contact with a dog or other animal infected with distemper
  • Your dog develops neurological signs, such as a head tilt or muscle tremors

Call us and speak to one of our Joii vets if:

  • You have any questions about vaccinations in dogs
  • You have any questions about looking after your dog with distemper at home
Consult a vet - £28

Consult your vet online. Anyday, anytime.

Consult a Joii vet online for £28. Or free if you’re insured with one of our partners.

Developed by vets 🩺

QR code to app

How to get an

Join a practice

*It's free*

Download the app to register and become a member of Joii vets. In only a few taps you will have access to digital vet care 24/7 as well as a vet practice

Download the app

We’re writing as quick as we can

This article is currently being written by one of our expert vets. Check back soon.