Canine Distemper – A Deadly Virus

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Canine distemper is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus which attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of dogs. Although dogs are the most commonly affected, Canine Distemper affects other carnivore species, including the bat-eared fox and African Wild dog. These infected animals can be the cause of the spread of this disease to domesticated dogs. Within the residential environment, the virus circulates amongst the unvaccinated dog population, which highlights the need for herd immunity to be created by vaccinating all puppies/dogs.

Canine Distemper is spread through bodily secretions (nasal fluid as an example). The most common means of transfer is by breathing in particles secreted by infected dogs. For several weeks after recovery, a dog will still carry the virus that can lead to further contamination if not properly quarantined. Infected dogs remain contagious for three months. The virus can be transferred to susceptible dogs via clothing, blankets, food bowls etc. This makes quarantining and disinfecting essential if treating distemper cases. (household disinfectants such as bleach are effective)


Upon contracting the virus, dogs often appear “normal” for several days. The initial symptoms of the disease are runny nose, watery eyes and a sore throat. The dog is contagious to other dogs by this stage. The dog’s temperature will increase to approximately 103.5°F (39.7°C). Over the next couple of days, the symptoms worsen with the tonsils becoming enlarged, and the dog may develop diarrhea. After approximately four weeks, the virus begins to affect the brain. The dog will start twitching, which will gradually turn in more severe convulsions. Convulsions can become so frequent and violent, that they can lead to death in affected dogs. Euthanasia is often carried out at this stage to prevent suffering. 


There are only two methods of prevention. The first and the best thing would be to have your dog vaccinated, from as early as six weeks. Early vaccination will circumvent the unnecessary hardship and heartache associated with Canine distemper, which will also help protect the general dog population in your area. The second is removing diseased animals from the population to avoid an outbreak.


There is no known treatment for Canine distemper. Support treatment consists of controlling the spread and severity of secondary symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Constant care is needed to make your dog as comfortable as possible. Most Veterinary hospitals will not treat distemper cases on-site, due to the high risk of infecting other dogs, as well as the intense treatment and poor prognosis associated with this disease.

Care and support

For those that do recover, many will have residual neurological signs for life. Old dog encephalitis is a potential complication in dogs that have had distemper – severe neurological disease when they get old, even if fully recovered as a young dog. The clinical prognosis is poor and a large percentage of infected dogs will die or need to be euthanized. 

Also read about the Canine Parvovirus here

Should you require urgent assistance with your dog, please call 021 7004158/98 or After-hours on 083 326 1604 for help. Alternatively, bring your dog to our clinic for consultation with a qualified veterinarian.

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