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Treatment and Prognosis of Canine Distemper

Source: PetWave, Updated on July 16, 2015
Canine Distemper

Goals of Treating Distemper in Dogs

Distemper in domestic dogs is a highly contagious, often fatal viral disease that affects respiratory, urogenital, gastrointestinal, ocular and central nervous system tissue. Distemper is most commonly seen in young dogs, although unvaccinated, immunocompromised or otherwise stressed dogs of all ages are at risk of contracting the virus as well. The disease causes a range of clinical signs that can include a fluctuating fever, nasal and ocular discharge, cough, depression, loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, sensitivity to light, sound and touch, muscle twitches, paralysis, confusion, seizures and death. Respiratory signs normally are the first abnormalities noticed by owners of affected dogs. When an owner notices any of these signs, she should take her dog to the veterinarian as soon as possible and keep him away from other dogs. The goals of treating canine distemper are of course to resolve the infection in the affected animal, but also to prevent spread of infection to other susceptible animals.

Treatment Options

There are no specific antiviral drugs currently available to treat canine distemper. Therapy centers on managing the clinical signs of the disease and making the dog as comfortable as possible through effective medical care. The virus is particularly lethal in unvaccinated puppies; older dogs with stronger immune systems have a better prognosis, but even their chances of survival are low. The most important factor influencing a dog’s prognosis is whether (and if so, to what extent) the disease has affected its central nervous system.

Dogs with distemper need to be hospitalized, isolated from other animals and cared for on an independent inpatient basis. Broad spectrum antibiotics and expectorants or other cough medications can be used to treat respiratory tract symptoms and secondary bacterial pneumonia that frequently accompany this illness. The dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhea typically can be managed with intravenous fluid support. A number of medications are available to soothe nausea and reduce diarrhea. If seizures are occurring, anti-seizure medications may be administered, and appropriate pain management steps can be taken as well. Corticosteroids are typically not recommended for dogs with distemper, as they suppress the immune system and may promote dissemination of the distemper virus system-wide.

Dogs can shed the canine distemper virus for weeks to several months even after they recover from acute disease. As a result, they should be kept away from other dogs during this time. Your veterinarian can provide a precise isolation period based upon the course of your dog’s illness. All surfaces and bedding that the dog has had contact with should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. The canine distemper virus is sensitive to ultraviolet light, heat and drying. In colder climates, it tends to persist longer in the environment than it does in warm climates.


The prognosis for dogs with distemper depends upon how quickly the disease is diagnosed, the dog’s vaccination status and overall health, whether neurological/central nervous system symptoms develop and the age of the dog at the time of diagnosis. Unfortunately, the average death rate is about 50% in dogs that develop clinical signs of disease. If uncontrollable seizures or other severe neurological symptoms develop, owners may consider euthanasia as a potentially appropriate response to the condition that is causing their dogs to suffer. Importantly, dogs that recover from distemper do not shed the virus.

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