Does My Dog Need The Distemper Vaccine?

How to keep your dog protected 💪

distemper vaccine for dogs

You might’ve noticed your dog got a distemper vaccine (or a combo shot like the DHPP or DA2PP vaccine) during his last vet visit.

And maybe you found yourself wondering, “What exactly is the distemper vaccine, anyway?”

The Dodo spoke with Dr. Cristina Bustamante, an associate veterinarian with Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Florida and founder of Dr. B Vet, who explained why the distemper vaccine for dogs is so important.

What is distemper in dogs?

Distemper in dogs is a potentially fatal illness that can impact all sorts of things in your dog’s body, including his respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems.

“It is a virus that affects multiple organs and it can be very, very dangerous and even fatal,” Dr. Bustamante told The Dodo.

Distemper can affect your dog neurologically or physically, and the infection’s severity and symptoms look different from case to case.

Distemper symptoms in dogs

Distemper symptoms in dogs vary a lot, and it can affect so many different parts of their body. 

Here are some common distemper symptoms that range from mild issues to super serious, or even fatal, conditions:

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

If you notice these symptoms in your dog, he needs to go to the veterinarian ASAP. 

It’s possible for your pup to recover from distemper and be fine — only after being treated in a hospital for his symptoms — but it’s also possible that the issues he developed won’t fully go away.

If lingering neurological effects are particularly bad, your dog might have to be euthanized, even though the disease itself wasn’t fatal.

How do dogs get distemper?

Distemper is transmitted between dogs through airborne exposure, and it’s super contagious.

“A dog [or] a puppy can get the virus by being in contact with small droplets of saliva,” Dr. Bustamante said.

That includes drool and spit, but also particles released when a dog coughs, sneezes or even just barks.

Distemper can survive in the environment, but not for long, and it’s really easy to clean the virus off surfaces.

“Distemper can easily be killed in the environment,” Dr. Bustamante said.

But while distemper is easy to clean off your physical surroundings, your dog can still be exposed to the virus if he’s around an infected pup. And if your dog’s not fully vaccinated, that means he can still get distemper.

And since distemper in dogs is so easily spread around, the vaccine is the best way — and really the only way — to prevent your pup from getting seriously sick.

What is the distemper vaccine for dogs?

The distemper vaccine is a shot for dogs that will protect them from getting infected with the virus once they’ve received all the required doses.

“The distemper vaccine comes in two forms,” Dr. Bustamante said.

One form of the distemper vaccine for dogs is a modified-live virus vaccine. “What that means is that they change the virus in a way where it can enter your dog's body, but it cannot produce illness,” Dr. Bustamante said.

The modified-live virus vaccine helps your dog build immunity by exposing him to a version of the distemper virus that can’t actually make him sick. But it’ll still teach his immune system how to fight it off.

“[Their] body will recognize the virus when the real virus comes in and be able to attack it and then not get sick,” Dr. Bustamante said.

The other form is called a recombinant vaccine. “What that means is that they take a little piece of the virus, and they make a vaccine,” Dr. Bustamante said.

With the recombinant distemper vaccine for dogs, your pup will know how to fend off the virus if he’s ever exposed to it, since he’s already experienced a piece of the real thing.

“When the real virus gets into their body, the dog's body recognizes that tiny piece [and knows how to fight it],” Dr. Bustamante said.

Why the distemper vaccine for dogs is so important

The distemper vaccine is considered a core vaccine, which means all dogs should get it, regardless of their lifestyle and where they live.

In most cases, the distemper vaccine is bundled with the vaccines for parvovirus, adenovirus 2 and sometimes parainfluenza (which isn’t considered a core vaccine on its own).

So, sometimes your dog’s distemper vaccine will be referred to as the DA2P vaccine (if it doesn’t include the shot for parainfluenza), the DHPP vaccine or the DA2PP vaccine.

“Core vaccines are those that protect them against common diseases that most dogs can be exposed to throughout their lives,” Dr. Bustamante said.

Distemper is a virus that’s common across the globe, which means dogs from literally anywhere could potentially be infected and transmit the disease.

“Distemper does exist in the U.S.,” Dr. Bustamante said, “but it's a lot more common in other countries. And we tend to forget that lots of people import dogs into the U.S. … So, people think that their dog will never be in contact with an unvaccinated dog, and that's not true.”

Distemper affects dogs who aren’t fully vaccinated, which includes pups who have never had a single shot as well as those who are only partially vaccinated and haven’t received every dose they need.

“Some people think that just because their puppy has received a vaccine, [it] means that their puppy is protected,” Dr. Bustamante said. “You'd have to confirm with your veterinarian [that] your puppy's vaccines are complete.”

The distemper vaccine for dogs is the best — and really only — way to effectively prevent your dog from getting super sick with the virus, especially since it’s so easy to get and spread.

How many distemper shots does a puppy need?

“Then they start getting it from 6 weeks old, every two to four weeks, up until they're 16 weeks old,” Dr. Bustamante said.

Making sure your dog is fully vaccinated against the virus is so important. And the only way that can happen is if he’s getting absolutely every dose of the distemper vaccine he needs. 

“I feel that most of the puppies I've seen infected with viruses, even if they've received one dose, it's because owners thought that they were protected and they didn't know that they were still missing [doses],” Dr. Bustamante said.

Dogs of any age can get the distemper vaccine, but it’s best to start the process in 6-week-old puppies.

“Prior to 6 weeks old, vaccines in puppies are not as effective because they interfere with the immunity that their mom gives them [through her milk],” Dr. Bustamante said.

According to Dr. Bustamante, your dog is supposed to get another injection when he’s a year old. From there, he’ll get boosters every so often.

“Depending on where you are, sometimes it's every three years after,” Dr. Bustamante said.

If you aren’t sure whether or not your pup has been fully vaccinated, your vet should be able to help you figure it out.

“Whenever you go to your vet ... bring all the vaccine records because your vet will see when your puppy was vaccinated, and then will tell you when else your puppy needs future vaccines,” Dr. Bustamantee said.

How much does the canine distemper vaccine cost?

The price of the distemper vaccine for dogs is going to vary depending on where you go; it might only cost the price of the shot, the cost might include the standard fee for an office visit with your vet or it might cost nothing at all.

“It averages around $30,” Dr. Bustamante said. “But you can get them free at some shelters. Some shelters will vaccinate them basically for free or for, like, $5 or something like that.”

But keep in mind this doesn’t include the cost of the vet visit, which can bump up the price tag.

Side effects of the distemper vaccine for dogs

You’ll be happy to know that side effects really don’t happen very often with the distemper vaccine.

“Vaccine reactions are rare, very rare,” Dr. Bustamante said. “I give hundreds of vaccines in a month, and I ... see maybe three vaccine reactions or four vaccine reactions a year.”

If dogs do experience side effects of the distemper vaccine, they’re going to be incredibly mild. Common (yet rare) side effects include:

  • Mild face swelling
  • Sleepiness
  • Soreness at injection site

More serious reactions are even rarer occurrences.

If your pup does end up experiencing side effects of the distemper vaccine, that just means you need to take preventative measures before getting any other shots, since it’s likely they could also cause a similar reaction in your dog.

“Those pets do continue to get vaccines, but they need to get special allergy medications before getting them,” Dr. Bustamante.

But you shouldn’t let possible side effects keep your dog from receiving the distemper vaccine.

“It's a safe vaccine that can prevent your dog from dying,” Dr. Bustamante said. “It’s a cheap and safe way to protect your dog.”

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