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Distemper in Dogs

You might have noticed “DHPP” or “DAPP” on your pet’s veterinary paperwork and wondered about its significance. The “D” in this vaccine combination refers to distemper, a highly contagious disease that primarily spreads among dogs through direct contact, coughing, and sneezing.

Distemper is considered a core vaccine for dogs, indicating that it is essential for all dogs to receive regular vaccinations against it. Distemper can progress rapidly and become fatal, underscoring the crucial need for protection against the canine distemper virus. It’s imperative to ensure your dog remains up-to-date with vaccinations to shield them from the potentially devastating effects of distemper.

What Is Distemper in Dogs and Puppies?

Distemper in dogs and puppies is a highly contagious viral disease that can be fatal, affecting various organs such as the respiratory, gastrointestinal (GI), and nervous systems. Dogs that are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated, particularly puppies, are at the highest risk of contracting the disease.

It’s important to note that distemper doesn’t solely impact dogs. Infected ferrets and wildlife, including foxes, wolves, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and other carnivores, can also fall ill and transmit the virus to dogs. Prevention of distemper in dogs can be achieved through a core vaccination series administered by a licensed veterinarian.


Symptoms of distemper in dogs and puppies often begin with yellow- to green-colored eye discharge, followed by:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Reduced appetite
  • Diarrhea

Some dogs may only show signs of a mild cold with eye and nasal discharge, while others may exhibit no symptoms at all initially.

As the disease advances, dogs may experience:

  • Tremors
  • Chewing motions of the jaw
  • Seizures
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Pneumonia
  • Crusting of the nose and foot pads
  • Severe vomiting and diarrhea
  • In many cases, death


The primary mode of transmission for distemper in dogs is through respiratory secretions, such as coughing and sneezing. However, other bodily fluids like urine, vomit, and stool can also contain the virus. Contact with an infected animal is the most common way for distemper to spread, although shared food bowls and contaminated supplies, surfaces, and equipment can also pose a risk.

It’s important to note that dogs, ferrets, and wildlife can appear healthy and still carry the distemper virus. Even recovered dogs may remain contagious for four months or longer.

Are Puppies More Prone to Canine Distemper?

Indeed, puppies are most susceptible to canine distemper, yet any dog lacking full vaccination against the virus can fall ill, irrespective of age.

Can Humans Get Distemper?

Currently, there is no evidence suggesting that humans can contract canine distemper. However, ferrets are also vulnerable to the canine distemper virus and should receive vaccination against it.


Treatment for distemper in dogs involves providing supportive care for the clinical signs, which can vary depending on the symptoms exhibited by the dog. Common treatments include:

  • Gastrointestinal support to address severe diarrhea and vomiting, which can result in dehydration. Many cases necessitate intravenous fluid therapy to treat and prevent dehydration, along with anti-vomiting medications and antibiotics. The canine distemper virus may compromise the immune system, leading to secondary bacterial infections, septicemia, disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), and potentially death.
  • Respiratory support for severe pneumonia. Dogs experiencing difficulty breathing and severe coughing may require oxygen therapy, antibiotics, and hospitalization to manage these life-threatening symptoms.
  • Neurological support for seizures. Seizures caused by distemper can last for several minutes, potentially causing irreversible brain damage or death. Dogs exhibiting seizures may need hospitalization, close monitoring, and anti-seizure medications.

Can a Dog Recover From Distemper?

Dogs can indeed survive distemper, although they may experience lifelong debilitating nervous system issues. Adult dogs have a higher chance of survival compared to puppies.

Distemper may result in chronic seizures and muscle twitches. Neurological symptoms might emerge weeks or months following the initial infection and persist throughout the dog’s life.

Dogs with distemper are usually contagious for a minimum of two weeks and should be kept isolated from other animals during this period. Those displaying neurological symptoms can remain infectious for four months or more.

Preventing Distemper in Dogs

Preventing distemper in dogs primarily relies on proper vaccination, which is crucial for averting this severe illness.

Given the delicate nature of the vaccine, it’s imperative that a veterinarian administers these vaccinations. This ensures quality control, safe handling—including temperature-controlled shipping and storage—and accurate administration.

Side Effects of the Distemper Vaccine in Dogs

The distemper vaccine triggers the immune system to offer protection against the disease. While most dogs experience no adverse effects from vaccination, some may develop soreness at the injection site or a mild fever. In rare instances, allergic reactions may occur, characterized by facial swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, and collapse. It’s important to discuss with your veterinarian the advantages and potential risks associated with vaccinations.

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