Canine Distemper Virus – CDV – Basic Information

Distemper, a viral disease that is seen worldwide, but thankfully most dog owners will only hear about in theory, as cases in domestic dogs have drastically declined since distemper was included in the core vaccines. Rescuers and carers of stray dogs have a higher probability of coming across this viral disease when caring for, and rescuing stray dogs. In this article, we will have a closer look at what distemper is, what the symptoms are, and how it’s transmitted.

What is distemper?

Canine distemper, also known as distemper, distemperment, or foot pad disease, is a virus disease to which domestic dogs and ferrets are highly susceptible. Some other animals who can contract distemper are wolves, bears, seals, elephants, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, skunks, minks, river otters, badgers, weasels, and some primates. Canine distemper does not affect humans. 

Distemper affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems, and has a high mortality rate. In adult dogs the fatality rate is about 50%, for pups this is about 80%. For ferrets mortality is up to 100% when unvaccinated.

The chances of survival for distemper depend on duration and severity of the disease, which will be affected by the animals immune status, age, and the virulence of the infection strain of the virus. A swift start of supportive treatment also increases the survival chance.


While symptoms may vary from case to case, signs of distemper can be:

  • Yellow discharge from nose and eyes
  • Cough
  • Seizures
  • Neurological signs (such as head tilting, sensitivity to light,  and paralysis)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Laboured breathing
  • Thickening of the skin on feet and nose.
  • Fever

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis of distemper can be made at the veterinarian. By looking at the symptoms, and doing laboratory testing, they can determine if an animal has distemper. A CT scan or MRI might be warranted if brain damage is suspected.

There is no cure for distemper, and treatment will mainly consist of supporting the animal to fight the disease and treating the symptoms. Medicine can be given to suppress vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures if required, and antibiotics can be given to fight secondary bacterial infections if they arise. Intravenous fluid therapy can be given to replenish fluids and minerals. The length of the disease varies, and can be as short as 10 days. In other cases neurological signs will appear several weeks or months later.

When a dog is fighting distemper, complications can occur that are life threatening. Mental abilities and motor skills may decline, and animals may start having seizures, end up paralysed, and or lose coordination. Euthanization should be considered when these complications arise as they can cause immense pain and suffering. 

While the fatality rate of distemper is high, some dogs do beat the disease, but those are often left with permanent damage. A common example of this is hard pad disease, in which the skin on the end of the nose and paw pads thickens. Another common complication is an enamel defect of the teeth characterised by thin or absent enamel when the infection happens in pups that have no teeth yet. 

Other lasting damage can include nervous muscular twitches and recurrent seizures. 

Transmission and Prevention

Canine distemper is an airborne virus, which means it gets transmitted mainly through small respiratory droplets. These droplets are expelled in the surroundings through sneezes, coughs, barks, and licks. Distemper can also be transmitted on items like clothes, pet supplies such as bowls/brushes/leads, and can be passed in blood, vomit, stool, and urine. 

The main way to prevent distemper is by ensuring your dog receives all their puppy vaccinations. There is a series of 3 distemper vaccines for pups between the ages of 2 and 4 months of age. This vaccine is boostered after a year, and after that according to the manufacturer recommendation of the vaccine your veterinarian uses. The letter D, in the DHPP vaccine, is distemper. 

Other things one can do to prevent distemper, is not mingling your not fully vaccinated pup with unvaccinated dogs, or visit places where other dogs visit. This is not only helpful to prevent distemper, but also other dangerous viral diseases such as parvo. If you live in an area where wildlife lives that can spread distemper, such as raccoons, keep water and food bowls inside, as sick wildlife may use the bowls and contaminate them.

Dogs, ferrets, and wildlife can appear healthy but still spread the virus. Recovered dogs may remain contagious for four months or more.


If your dog has received their full series of three or more distemper vaccinations, it’s highly unlikely your dog will contract distemper. However, it’s not impossible, and it’s always wise to keep a close eye on their health and consult your veterinarian when they are unwell. If you would like to know more about our dog training, dog walking or dog sitting services. Please feel free to contact us. We will be happy to help.

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