Dog Distemper Symptoms

Updated October 16, 2022
Bulldog with flu

Are you familiar with dog distemper symptoms? If your dog has a runny nose, eye discharge, and is not eating, they may be in trouble. Particularly if your pet hasn't been vaccinated, you really need to know the symptoms of canine distemper and how to proceed if you suspect your dog has it.

What Is Canine Distemper?

The canine distemper virus is a highly contagious disease that attacks a dog's main body systems, including the respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal system, and even the central nervous system. As you can imagine, such an attack is devastating, and many infected dogs die from the illness. To date, there is no cure for the distemper virus. It simply has to run it's course to the end.

This virus is airborne, and most typically spread via an infected animal's breath, sneezes, saliva, and eye secretions. It can also be shed in the animal's urine and droppings. If the animal is fortunate enough to recover, they will still continue to shed the virus for several months after the symptoms have subsided, but this will eventually end.

Initial Dog Distemper Symptoms

A dog suffering from this virus will typically display at least some of the dog distemper symptoms listed below. It is not necessary to display all of them in order to have the virus, and which symptoms appear has a lot to do with which areas of the body are most affected.

These symptoms are common no matter which bodily systems are affected:

  • Fever: Normal dog temperature ranges 100 to 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Fever caused by distemper will spike to 103 Fahrenheit or higher. The fever may come and go, so sometimes it goes unnoticed in the beginning.
  • Lethargy: The dog will seem depressed, reluctant to move, and have low energy.

Signs the respiratory system has been infected include:

  • Nasal discharge: A runny nose is one of the earliest signs of infection.
  • Watery eyes: Inflamed, runny eyes quickly become matted with mucus as the infection takes hold.
  • Heavy breathing: If the dog has a runny nose and panting, this is a sign that the lungs are affected.
  • Coughing: Coughing could indicate pneumonia is developing in the lungs.

When the gastrointestinal tract is affected, signs include:

  • Vomiting: This is a sign the virus is attacking the gastrointestinal system.
  • Diarrhea: Bouts of diarrhea are further signs of the virus in the gastrointestinal tract.

Brain/Spinal cord involvements typically presents as:

  • Lack of muscle control: This generally presents as muscle twitches or tremors. It can also look like general clumsiness that deteriorates into spasm or seizures and various degrees of paralysis.
  • Loss of motor skills: This is consistent with the lack of muscle control and is a sign the virus is attacking the brain.
  • Confusion: This is further sign of the virus' presence in the brain.
  • Blindness: Loss of sight appears in the late stages of the disease.
  • Hard paw pads: Some strains of the virus can cause thickening of the paw pads.

Timeline of Disease Onset

The initial onset of symptoms occurs one to four weeks after a dog first contracts the distemper virus. During this time, the virus is incubated in the lymphatic system, and from there it makes its way into the blood stream where it is circulated throughout the entire body. Finally, the virus makes its way into the linings of the digestive, respiratory, and central nervous systems. This is when symptoms of illness become noticeable.

Additional Symptoms from Secondary Infections

While your dog's immune system is engaged fighting the distemper virus, secondary bacterial infections have the opportunity to invade and make your dog even sicker. The signs of these infections are often the same as those caused by the distemper virus, but they cause those symptoms to increase in severity. Generally, you should watch for a dramatic increase in mucous secretions from the nose and eyes, as well as very labored breathing. You may also notice bloody mucus in the diarrhea.

What You Can Do to Help Your Dog

In the event that your dog does contract the distemper virus, you need to seek veterinary care as soon as you notice any symptoms. Your vet will assess your dog's condition, attempt to identify the virus, and offer supportive care. This can include administering IV fluids and antibiotics for secondary infections. The treatment is designed to help sustain your dog as their immune system goes to battle against the invading organisms.

Can a Dog Survive Distemper?

There is no cure for distemper, so treating the symptoms is currently the only course of action. However, it is possible for a dog to survive distemper with aggressive treatment. The outcome of the situation mainly depends on your dog's own strength and the promptness of care. Some dogs who survive have irreversible neurological problems, such as life-long tremors or seizures, though these can sometimes be managed with medication.

Protect Your Dog from Distemper

First and foremost, the best way to help your dog avoid contracting canine distemper is to have them vaccinated according to your vet's recommendations. Until your dog has complete protection through the vaccine series, avoid contact with dog parks or other places whether they could become infected. Distemper has no cure, so prevention is crucial.

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Dog Distemper Symptoms