What's Distemper In Dogs?

It’s pretty scary, tbh 😱

distemper in dogs

Hearing your vet diagnose your dog with something called distemper can be pretty scary, especially if you’ve never heard of it before and have no idea how it’ll affect your pup.

And if you just had that tough talk with your vet, you probably want to learn everything you can about your dog’s disease.

The Dodo spoke with Dr. Cristina Bustamante, an associate veterinarian with Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Florida and founder of Dr. B Vet, to find out everything you need to know about the scary — but totally preventable — disease.

What's distemper?

Distemper is a virus that can infect dogs and other animals — and can be super harmful to your pup’s health.

“Distemper can affect anything from the teeth of the puppy to the skin, the nose, in the lungs, the intestines and even the brain,” Dr. Bustamante told The Dodo.

Distemper can affect multiple organs and cause a whole variety of physical or neurological issues, but it doesn’t always present the same way.

“Each case is different,” Dr. Bustamante said. “It just really depends, but it can progress to the point where the dog is having seizures and twitches. So it can affect the actual brain itself.”

The scary part is that distemper can be deadly, both directly and indirectly.

“Some cases are not fatal, but it leaves the dog neurologically so affected that some pets need to be euthanized,” Dr. Bustamante said.

How do dogs get distemper?

“Distemper is a virus that is transmitted between dogs by secretions,” Dr. Bustamante said.

A secretion can mean spit or drool, but it also includes any saliva particles an infected dog releases into the air by barking, coughing or sneezing.

So basically, distemper is airborne and super contagious.

Dogs of any age can get distemper if they’re not fully vaccinated. That includes unvaccinated and partially vaccinated puppies and dogs.

“Distemper affects unvaccinated dogs,” Dr. Bustamante said. “Adult dogs can also get it if they're not vaccinated.”

You can effectively prevent the virus from spreading by disinfecting surfaces and spaces where other pups have been, but truly the best method of prevention is with the vaccine.

“The distemper virus does not live very long outside of the dog,” Dr. Bustamante said. “So it can easily be cleaned, and the area be [made] safe for other dogs.”

But because distemper is transferred from dog to dog, being in a sterile environment isn’t a foolproof way to prevent your dog from getting infected with the virus if he’s still coming into contact with other pups.

Distemper symptoms in dogs

Since the virus can affect so many different things, there’s a wide range of distemper symptoms in dogs, ranging from mild to severe, like:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Muscle tics
  • Seizures
  • Pneumonia

Some of the more mild symptoms might not feel serious on their own, but Dr. Bustamante said you should be concerned if your pup is experiencing coughing, vomiting, diarrhea and nasal discharge all at once.

“That combination can make a veterinarian suspect distemper in a puppy and an unvaccinated pet,” Dr. Bustamante said.

Distemper in dogs can also affect superficial areas, like the nose and paw pads.

“What it can do to the paw pads and the nasal plane on the nose is that [they] can get very thickened,” Dr. Bustamante said. “So it affects the lining of their skin and those areas.”

It can also really mess with your pup’s teeth.

“It affects the growing teeth,” Dr. Bustamante said. “If the puppy recovers from the infection, when it becomes an adult they usually have very abnormal teeth color, they have stained teeth and small, abnormally-shaped teeth. That can affect their quality of life, actually, when they're older.”

Internally, distemper can harm your dog’s lungs, causing another serious disease.

“When it gets to their lungs, it can inflame their lungs and cause pneumonia,” Dr. Bustamante said.

It could even affect your pup neurologically, causing tics.

“They'll get to the point where they'll start walking abnormally, clenching their mouths abnormally, muscle twitches,” Dr. Bustamante said. “And they even can get to the point where they have seizures.”

Is there distemper treatment?

Vets can treat the symptoms of distemper, but can’t do anything to treat the disease itself.

“It's supportive care, which means that we try to improve the signs that they're showing,” Dr. Bustamante said. “But there's no medication I can give to cure it.”

If your dog has distemper, he should go to an animal hospital to receive treatment for his symptoms.

“You can't treat this at home,” Dr. Bustamante said.

It’s possible for your pup to eventually recover from distemper on his own, but that depends on a few factors, including the strength of his immune system and the severity of the virus.

Recovering from distemper could take your dog anywhere from 10 days to several months.

“Usually once they recover, they're fine,” Dr. Bustamante said. “Some dogs can stay with tics and some neurological signs … But most of the ones that recover … can live happy, healthy lives.”

Why the distemper vaccine for dogs is important

The distemper vaccine for dogs is considered a core vaccine, which means all dogs should get it no matter where they live, what they do or where they go.

And that’s because of how widespread and devastating the virus can be.

“It's easily transmitted and it's still common,” Dr. Bustamante said. “It's such a bad disease that can be safely prevented by vaccination.”

Puppies and dogs can still get distemper even if they’re partially vaccinated, so it’s important to make sure your BFF gets all the doses he needs.

And while it’s possible that your dog could survive and recover from distemper, the symptoms can be so awful and even remain after recovery.

So, the best thing to do when it comes to dealing with distemper in dogs is to prevent your pup from ever getting it in the first place — and the only way to do that is by getting him fully vaccinated.

“People should be more afraid of the distemper virus [than the vaccine],” Dr. Bustamante said.

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