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Canine Distemper: The World's #1 Killer of Dogs

Updated on January 1, 2016
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.


Silver Lining: It's Preventable

According to studies, it’s the number one cause of infectious disease deaths in dogs worldwide, however in the U.S. distemper is one of the core vaccines so we only encounter it sporadically.

Core vaccines, by the way, are not required by law, but are considered by 2006 American Animal Hospital Association guidelines to be vital to all dogs based on risk of exposure, severity of disease or transmissibility to humans.

Although it sounds like a behavioral issue, canine distemper is a serious and highly contagious virus, affecting many organs of the body, including the brain, lungs, gut, skin and eyes.

It’s similar to human measles and has nothing to do with violent behavior.

While there’s no cure, it is preventable. And unlike rabies, canine distemper cannot be passed on to humans. But, wild animals can infect dogs so it’s wise not to let your dog stray too far from you while you’re outside lest he engage a wild animal either as a playmate or prey.

In addition to wild canids such as foxes, the disease can also be passed on by raccoons, skunks, coyotes, otter, mink and fisher.

Distemper is highly contagious because it can be transmitted through the air and is shed in all bodily fluids. And it can be fatal.

The highest mortality rate occurs among the very young and the old, those that are unvaccinated, and those not generally well cared for nor in good health.

Dogs that survive the disease may carry "scars" the rest of their lives.

Puppies that survive often have badly mottled teeth because the virus affects the developing enamel.

Adult survivors frequently have permanent vision damage, neurological disorders and a thickening of the nose and foot pads.


Symptoms and Treatment

Although the canine distemper virus is very similar to the human measles virus, the symptoms are closer to those of the flu. The most common symptoms of distemper are runny eyes and nose, cough, diarrhea, vomiting, and sometimes seizures.

There's no specific treatment for canine distemper. The symptoms are treated as they occur, an IV is often started to prevent dehydration, and, if necessary, medications that block seizures are administered.

The key to the whole thing is prevention. Highly effective vaccines have been available for years. Check with your own veterinarian, but in general, puppies should be vaccinated at six, nine, twelve and fifteen weeks, and at one year of age. Boosters should be given annually for life.

And, of course, there's the usual advice about not trying to catch or handle wild mammals. Remember that it is impossible to determine if distemper (or rabies) is present based on behavior.

With wild animals bedding down under our decks and sheds, feeding from, and hunting at, our birdfeeders, and using our property as an access route from here to there, it's absolutely necessary that you keep your pets' shots up to date.


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Nice to meet you, bodylevive, thanks for stopping by. Eragon certainly is a handsome dude and Squeaky is a heart-stealer. You shouldn't have to worry about the disease as long as you get them their distemper shot and annual booster.

      It's too bad pit bulls are saddled with a bad reputation. It has caused some communities near me to regulate, or even ban them through Breed Specific Legislation. Unfortunately, "dog bites man" is a cliche, "pit bull bites man" is a headline. Thank you for commenting.

    • bodylevive profile image

      BODYLEVIVE 4 years ago from Alabama, USA

      Thank you for this information. I'm glad you provided a photo, that way I will know immediately if Eragon or Squeaky comes down with distemper. Would you like to see my babies?

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Good point! I completely forgot, "I read on the Internet," which drove me crazy, too, because many people take almost anything on the net at face value. Thanks for bringing that up.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 5 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      Or worse "I read on the internet that vaccinations will kill my dog". There are sites out there telling dog owners that homeopathic nosodes are better, or no vaccines at all.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      There may be parts of the U.S. where it is seen as well, but in my neck of the woods it's very unusual. If nothing else, social pressure guides pet owners down the path to good husbandry. That's probably the way in most heavily populated areas.

      Pet owners form a community and share stories, problems and solutions everywhere they parks, supermarkets, soccer practice, etc. Most everyone wants to do the best for their pets, and it starts with proper medical care and a good diet.

      People learn a lot by networking with other pet owners, and in my experience, that's their primary source of information. It's the "They and Someone School of Animal Husbandry." Customers would come into my store looking for a specific product because, "They say that..." or "Someone told me that..."

      But now, a lot of folks are questioning the wisdom of vaccinations, so I hope that doesn't change their mind about annual distemper boosters because "They say that vaccinations are harmful" or "Someone told me that vaccinations..."

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, DrMark. Always nice to have your input. Regards, Bob

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 5 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      We still see this a lot, unfortunately. It is a horrible disease, and so easily prevented, so the cost of the vaccine is really minimal compared to the pain a dog has to go through. Thanks for pointing out the importance of getting those shots!