Is my dog at risk of Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper is a potentially fatal viral illness.   If your adult dog has distemper there is a 50% chance that it will be fatal and that chance increases to 80% in puppies.

Death is usually a result of damage to the nervous system and subsequent complications such as seizures.  Severe cases can also cause the dog to develop secondary infections such as pneumonia.

The virus is passed from dog to dog through direct contact with fresh urine, blood or saliva. Sneezing, coughing and sharing food and water bowls are all possible ways for the virus to be passed on.

While the number of dogs contracting distemper is much fewer these days due to vaccination, puppies and unvaccinated adult dogs are still susceptible to the virus.  It is highly contagious and there is no known medication that will destroy the virus.    Outbreaks of the disease are reported from time to time in various parts of the western world, particularly where vaccination rates are low.

If the media is reporting an outbreak of distemper in your local area, your pet may be at risk even if vaccinated. 

Take Precautions

It is always best to err on the side of caution if a distemper outbreak is occurring in your local area.  

  • Ensure your dog’s vaccinations are current
  • Protect your pet from exposure to infected animals, particularly if a puppy or unvaccinated
  • Keep your dog away from contact with all other dogs, particularly strays
  • Don’t allow your dog to use communal or municipal water bowls
  • Avoid boarding your pet in kennels while the outbreak is occurring
  • Defer routine visits to the grooming salon or vet (although you should always attend the vet immediately if symptoms of the condition start to appear)

Symptoms of Distemper

Canine distemper is caused by a virus that affects a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems, as well as the conjunctival membranes of the eye.

Early signs of canine distemper will include sneezing, coughing and thick mucus coming from the eyes and nose. Fever, lethargy, sudden vomiting and diarrhea, or loss of appetite may follow as the virus spreads through the body. 

When the virus enters the central nervous system you will likely see tremors, imbalance, limb weakness and seizures or convulsions. 


As previously stated, distemper can be fatal.   There is no cure and no medication currently exists that will kill the virus. 

If you dog has been diagnosed with distemper, treatment will be focused on alleviating the symptoms.  This will include keeping your pet comfortable and providing fluids to ensure adequate hydration.

In Australia, there are reports that photonic therapy is having considerable success in alleviating the symptoms of distemper. 

Photonic therapy is red light treatment (not needles) administered at known acupuncture points on the dog’s body.  The red light is generated from a torch-like utensil.  When applied correctly at particular points of the body, neuro-chemicals are released which support healing and provide temporary relief from pain. 

The treatment is non-invasive, pain-free, has no reported side effects and can be administered by you at home.

More information about photonic therapy, its application and uses can be found here

Antibiotics may also be prescribed in the event of any secondary bacterial infection such as pneumonia.  The good news is that fully recovered dogs do not spread or carry the virus.


The best way to prevent canine distemper is to vaccinate against it.   Isolation from infected animals is necessary, particularly for new-born puppies as they  are especially susceptible to the virus.

Puppies should be vaccinated at six to eight weeks of age and booster shots given every two to four weeks until they are 16 weeks old. Unless the full series of shots is completed, the vaccination will not be effective and your dog will not be protected against the virus.

It is likely that distemper outbreaks will continue to occur while pet owners do not ensure a completed vaccination program.