Distemper in Dogs

What is Canine Distemper?

Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) is a highly contagious viral disease that affects the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system, and the central nervous system in domesticated dogs. Other wildlife populations impacted by the virus include coyotes, foxes, pandas, wolves, ferrets, skunks, and raccoons.

Canine Distemper is seen worldwide in dog populations where vaccination rates are low and the volume of stray dogs is high (VCA Hospital).  Thanks to vaccinations, the disease is much less common now than it was in the past, and it is important to continue vaccinating dogs for the virus to continue this positive trend.


Canine Distemper is primarily spread through respiratory secretions.  Sneezing, coughing, and eye and nose secretions are all forms of transmission.  The disease is easily spread in shelters due to the crowding of animals and poor immune systems. Shelter dogs typically have weaker immune systems due to the fact that they are all in a confined space with many other animals, and therefore are more susceptible to illness.

In addition to shelters, the virus can live in the environment for several hours, however it is not able to live much longer than that outside of a host.  Even though the virus cannot survive very long outside of a dog’s body, it is still easy for the virus to spread on hands, feet, equipment, etc., so it is important to take the proper precautions to prevent the spread of disease.  Check out our Dog Treatment and Prevention page for more information on how to prevent the virus.

Puppies that are born to an unvaccinated mother are at a very high risk for infection, and can contract the disease in utero.  After birth, a puppy can also become ill from nursing from an infected mother as well.

canine distemper

Incubation Period

The incubation period is the typical period of time that it takes from an animal’s initial exposure to a virus, to the time that the clinical signs begin to appear.  The incubation period depends on many different factors including the severity of the disease, the age of an animal, and the health of an animal’s immune system.  In Canine Distemper, this period is about one to two weeks, however it can be as long as six weeks.

Occasionally, neurological signs will show up months after the initial exposure in dogs that never showed any other signs of illness.  It is for this reason that dogs should be quarantined for at least a month in order to protect other animals, especially in a shelter setting.  It is also important to note that not all dogs that are exposed to the virus will become infected, however quarantine will ensure the safety of all animals.

Signs and Symptoms

The clinical signs of the virus occur in stages and impact three main body systems.  These systems include the upper respiratory tract, the central nervous system, and the gastrointestinal tract.  Look for the clinical signs in the order below as a general guideline to follow, however it is important to remember that symptoms can present differently in each dog.  The severity of symptoms depend on many factors-  if a dog has a healthy immune system, he or she has a better chance of fighting off the virus.  A dog with a weak immune system is less likely to fight off the disease.

First Stage

In the first stage, you may notice coughing, sneezing, lethargy, a high fever, and secretions of the eyes and nose.  The symptoms in this stage can often be mistaken for other illnesses such as influenza.

Second Stage

In the second stage, the gastrointestinal tract may become inflamed, causing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  You may also notice a persistent cough and a lack of appetite, known as anorexia.

Third Stage

In the last stage, neurological symptoms begin to appear.  The signs typically occur within one to three weeks, and can include jerking of the muscles, seizures, and a change in normal behavior.  Additionally, you should look for aggressiveness, tics/tremors, retinal discoloration, and hardening of the pads of the feet.


Diagnosing the Canine Distemper virus can be quite difficult, as there is not one simple test that will give you a positive or negative result for the disease.  Typically, your veterinarian will start with a physical examination. The vet will look at your dog overall from head to tail, and take vitals like heart rate, weight, and rectal temperature.  The vet will also ask you about your dog’s medical history, such as previous illnesses and vaccine history.  Next, your vet may run a series of tests to help confirm a diagnosis, all of which are detailed below.

Urine Test

A urine test is performed to screen for a reduced number of lymphocytes.  Lymphocytes are white blood cells that work together to fight off foreign substances and illnesses.  If the test comes back with a low number, it is a good indicator that the dog tested does have Distemper.

Electrolyte Test

Electrolyte tests are run in order to ensure that your pet is not suffering from an electrolyte imbalance or dehydration, both of which can result from the virus.  Restoration of electrolytes and fluids can be done with intravenous fluid (IV) and potassium repletion.

Antibody Test

Antibody tests can determine if your pet has been exposed to specific diseases such as Distemper.  An antibody titer test measures the concentration of antibodies in the blood by diluting a blood sample and exposing the sample to the Distemper antigen.  If the result comes back positive, this means that there are protective levels of the antibody against the virus.  A negative result means that there are not protective levels of the antibody.

Blood Test

A blood test will count the number of red and white blood cells in your dog’s body, while also looking for antibodies to Distemper.  A low blood cell count is a good indicator of the disease, and may indicate mild anemia in the beginning stages of the illness.  Blood samples are usually taken two weeks apart in order to look for rising or lowering numbers, as a single blood sample does not have much diagnostic value.


A thoracic radiography (chest X-ray) provides a picture of a dog’s body internally, and may show physical changes in a dog’s lungs.  A chest X-ray may be performed to determine if a dog has pneumonia as a result of the Distemper virus.  A follow-up X-ray may be taken after the symptoms are resolved in order to confirm that the pneumonia has subsided.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test

The PCR test uses a molecular method to look closely at the virus from respiratory secretions, feces, or a blood sample.  It is recommended that this test is performed within the first three weeks after infection for the best results, however it is not always suspected that a dog has the virus until the last stage when the neurological symptoms begin to appear.  PCR can also help with determining adoption safety by re-testing dogs two or three weeks after complete recovery from the symptoms.  Dogs that have a negative result should be considered safe to be adopted.

Nasal Swab

Canine Distemper often causes eye and nose secretions, and these secretions can be tested to confirm the disease.  In order to perform the test, a nasal swab is moistened with sterile saline and inserted into a dog’s nasal cavity.  Both nostrils will be swabbed, and then the swab will be placed into a sterile tube.

Environmental Factors

Technically speaking, the Canine Distemper virus is a single strand of RNA, which is wrapped in a protein coat, and then encased inside of a fatty envelope (Mar Vista Animal Medical Center, 2013).  This fatty envelope around the virus is what makes Distemper easily disrupted by the environment, and the virus cannot live more than a few hours at room temperature.  Cold and moist conditions are more favorable and allow the virus to live at least several weeks at close to freezing temperatures.

Since the virus is very vulnerable outside of a host, most common disinfectants can eradicate the virus, and routine cleanings of your home or shelter are strongly suggested.  To protect your hands, we recommend that you always wear disposable gloves when using cleaning products. For more information on disinfecting your home, visit our Dog Treatment and Prevention page.


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AMMEX Disposable Gloves

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Top 5 FAQ

How is Distemper spread?

Distemper is most likely to be picked up through direct contact with an infected dog’s saliva, blood or urine. It can also be passed through the air if an infected dog sneezes or coughs near your dog

How long does the distemper virus survive?

Unlike many other viruses, Distemper is inactivated in minutes outside of the living host’s body. Minimal disinfection is necessary due to the short life span outside of the host.

How do I clean up after Distemper?

Using a common disinfectant such as bleach will kill the virus. It’s recommended to thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and dried at least twice. Unlike the Canine Parvovirus, Distemper only survives outside the host for a few hours (longer if the temperatures are close to freezing).

What is the treatment for Distemper?

Once Distemper is contracted, supportive care is the only treatment available. This can include IV fluids, anti-seizure medications and other medications to control vomiting and diarrhea. Your Vet can also prescribe antibiotics to help with secondary bacterial infections that may be present.

How long before I notice symptoms in my dog?

That’s a great question! Typically 1-2 weeks is the incubation period, however, can be as many as 4-5 weeks before you see symptoms. Initial symptoms can include a fever and lethargy and can resemble the flu.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

How long do I need to quarantine my dog if they have Distemper?

If your dog has Distemper you should plan on them being quarantined for at least 30 days, the shedding process of Distemper can take up to 4 months. You should take necessary precautions and air on the longer side to ensure you’re not infecting other dogs in your household or public locations such as dog parks, clinics, etc.