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What Is Distemper And Should I Worry About My Dog Getting It?

| Published on January 3, 2024

Reviewed by: Dr. Theresa Fossum

Reviewed by:

Dr. Theresa Fossum

Meet Dr. Theresa (Terry) W. Fossum, DVM, MS. Ph.D., Diplomate ACVS – a remarkable animal lover whose passion for animal care and innovative solutions has left an indelible mark on the veterinary world. As the CEO of both Phoenix Animal Wellness and Epic Veterinary Specialists, she's ensuring dogs and cats receive the highest level of care and compassion.Read more

Distemper is a serious disease, and we’ve seen several people express concern over it and the pain it can cause pets and their families. We asked Dr. Kathryn Primm, a veterinarian with over 20 years’ experience treating pets and owner of Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee to share her expert knowledge with our readers on the dangers of distemper, and what you can do to prevent it.


What should pet owners know about distemper?


Dr. Primm: Distemper is caused by contagious virus that can attack your dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal tract and/or the nervous system and produce serious disease. Wild animals can serve as a source of infection and certainly contribute to the reemergence of the virus in our pets. Distemper infections are often characterized by watery eye discharge, thick nasal discharge and they seem to feel ill. They will also often have a decreased appetite, vomiting/diarrhea, fever and many times also display neurologic signs that resemble rabies.


What puts dogs at risk?


Dr. Primm: Any unvaccinated dog or puppy is at risk, especially young dogs not old enough to have completed their vaccine series, stray dogs, and even owned dogs that are not current on vaccines. The virus is spread between dogs and is airborne. Distemper is still commonly seen in shelters and rescues, where coughing and sneezing can be an effective method of spread, because so many dogs live indoors, in close quarters.

Dogs that have contact with wildlife should be especially well vaccinated for a number of reasons, including distemper.There have been rumors that distemper has been eradicated – but unfortunately, this is just a myth. Ask your own veterinarian for his/her recommended vaccine schedule to be sure that your dog is safe according to the risks in his life and your area. 


Is there a cure for distemper?


Dr. Primm: There is no cure at this time, and sadly, many dogs die from canine distemper. If your dog does have distemper, it is not a death sentence and your vet can treat him for it. Treatment is aimed at supporting the dog while his own immunity fights. Dogs that survive often suffer permanent neurologic damage, so it’s best to do everything you can to avoid it altogether.

Vaccination is our strongest defense against this formidable enemy, and is very effective when given according to guidelines. To insure adequate protection, make sure young pups receive all of the recommended booster vaccines and minimize your pets’ exposure to wildlife as much as possible.

Prevention is your best defense. By keeping your dog current on his vaccinations, you can save your pet a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering, and even an early death.

You can connect with Dr. Kathryn Primm on her Facebook. 

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