Distemper In Dogs And Cats: Signs, Treatment, Prevention & More

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Sick grey dog laying down (Caption: Distemper in Dogs)

Although they’re caused by two entirely different viruses, canine and feline distemper are highly contagious and potentially fatal diseases that are 100% preventable. That’s why it’s so important to get your pets vaccinated as young as possible. Find out how you can prevent your furry friends from contracting these terrible diseases.

What Is Distemper In Dogs?

Dog laying on the table at vet's office

Canine distemper is a serious contagious illness caused by the canine distemper virus (CDV). It’s a potentially fatal disease that affects multiple organs and the gastrointestinal,  respiratory, and central nervous systems.

Unfortunately, there’s no known cure. To put it into comparison, it’s related to the human measles virus. Young puppies who haven’t been vaccinated and non-immunized older dogs are highly susceptible to canine distemper.

How Do Dogs Get Distemper?

Canine distemper most commonly spreads by direct contact between an unvaccinated dog and an infected dog or object. Dogs can also contract distemper from the coughing and sneezing of infected animals, either by inhaling the viral airborne droplets or through contact with infectious droplets on surfaces like food and water bowls. Disinfectants can destroy the virus on surfaces.

Wild animals like raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, wolves, and ferrets can also contract the same distemper virus and spread it to your dog. Infected dogs and other animals can spread the virus for up to four months. And unfortunately, a mother dog can pass the virus to her puppies through the placenta.

Signs Of Distemper In Dogs

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Distemper in puppies and dogs typically attacks the body’s lymph tissue first, then progresses to the respiratory, gastrointestinal (GI), urogenital, and central nervous systems, as well as the optic nerves.

Early-Stage Symptoms

  • High fever
  • Watery discharge from nose and eyes
  • Lethargy
  • Reduced appetite
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Secondary bacterial respiratory or GI infections

Later-Stage Symptoms

The following symptoms are common during the later stage when the illness attacks the nervous system. This later stage usually occurs within one to three weeks after the systemic signs above, but in some cases, it can occur at the same time or weeks to months later.

  • Circling behavior
  • Head tilting
  • Muscle twitching
  • Convulsions with jaw chewing motions and increased salivation
  • Seizures
  • Partial or full paralysis
Sick dog with ice bag on head

Canine distemper is also known as “hard pad disease” because it can cause the pads of an animal’s feet to thicken or enlarge. For dogs with weak immune systems, death may occur two to five weeks after infection.

Canine Distemper Treatment & Prevention

Unfortunately, there’s no distemper shot for dogs or a quick and easy treatment to cure your dog if he becomes infected. If your dog does become infected with distemper, your vet can alleviate some of the symptoms with the following treatment:

  • Anorexia or diarrhea: IV fluids
  • Watery discharge from eyes and nose: cleaned away regularly
  • Secondary bacterial infection: antibiotics
  • Convulsions and seizures: phenobarbitals and potassium bromide

Preventing Canine Distemper Is Easy

As we’ve said above, distemper is a devastating disease for dogs. Your best line of defense and prevention is easy — have your vet give your pup a regular DHPP vaccination. This vaccination is for distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, and parainfluenza. It’s 100% effective for canine distemper and should be administered every three years. This vaccine can drastically reduce the likelihood of your dog contracting these illnesses.

What Does Canine Distemper Look Like?

Canine distemper is truly a sad illness. Below is a video of a puppy suffering from this disease.

What Is Feline Distemper?

Sick Cat

The virus that causes feline distemper, also commonly called feline panleukopenia, is completely unrelated to the canine distemper virus. It’s more closely related to the canine parvovirus. While feline distemper affects cats differently than canine distemper affects dogs, both diseases are incredibly contagious and can often be fatal if left untreated.

The panleukopenia virus infects and kills the rapidly growing and dividing white blood cells in the body, primarily those in the bone marrow, intestinal tract, skin, and developing fetuses. Infected cats suffer from a severely weakened immune system, leaving them highly susceptible to other diseases and viral or bacterial infections. It can lead to an anemic condition.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent the illness. Kittens two to six months old are at the highest risk and pregnant cats and cats with weak immune systems. Cats that survive are immune to a second infection from feline distemper (similar to humans with chickenpox).

How Do Cats Get Distemper?

Infected cats shed the virus in their stool, urine, and nasal secretions. Unvaccinated cats can become infected by direct contact with an infected cat, from the fleas from infected cats, or through contaminated surfaces, like an owner’s hands, food and water bowls, bedding, clothing, shoes, etc.

An infected cat typically only sheds the virus for a couple of days, but the virus can survive for a year or more in the environment — it’s also challenging to kill and is resistant to many disinfectants.

Feline Distemper Symptoms

Below is a list of symptoms of distemper in cats.

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (may contain blood)
  • Dehydration
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • High fever
  • Anemia
  • Rough and dull coat
  • Depression
  • Lack of coordination

Feline Distemper Treatment & Prevention

Intensive care as early as possible is critical to an infected cat’s survival. This may involve a hospital stay. Treatment usually involves IV fluids to combat dehydration, nutritional support, and any necessary antibiotics or other medications to kill secondary infections. Without this intensive care, the mortality rate from feline distemper is up to 90%.

Fortunately, the FVRCP feline distemper vaccine helps prevent the disease as well as protect against feline viral rhinotracheitis (herpesvirus 1) and calicivirus. This vaccine is considered a core vaccine for cats. The distemper shot for cats can be administered as early as six weeks old. It’s then administered every three to four weeks until your cat is 16 weeks old.

If the vaccine is given to adult cats or kittens older than 16 weeks, they should receive two doses, three to four weeks apart. One single dose is given one year after the last dose and then again every one to three years.

Vaccinations Can Save Your Pet’s Life

Thanks to distemper vaccines, we don’t see as many canine or feline distemper cases. No dogs have immunity to the canine distemper virus, which means no shelter does either. Vaccines can save your pet’s life. The canine and feline distemper vaccines can be the difference between life or death for your furry companion.

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The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

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