Canine Distemper

What is Canine Distemper?

Also known as CDV, Canine Distemper is a highly contagious viral illness that can be debilitating and even fatal. It not only affects dogs but can also be seen in certain species of wildlife including foxes, skunks and wolves. Puppies and non-immunized dogs are most commonly affected, but pets with a depressed immune system may also be vulnerable.

CDV is resistant to the majority of cleaning products and household bleach is the only known way to eradicate it.

What causes CDV?

The CDV virus is mainly transmitted through direct contact with an infected animal via bodily fluids such as saliva from coughs or sneezes. Inhalation is the most common way it enters a new dog’s system. It attacks the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract and central nervous system.

The virus does not live long once outside the body so indirect contact is extremely rare.
As with most contagious diseases, animal shelters and kennels are much more likely to be contaminated.

Symptoms of CDV

The primary symptoms of CDV include but are not limited to:
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Nasal discharge
  • Reduced appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Watery or pus-like discharge from the eyes
Once the virus reaches the central nervous system (CNS) it can cause twitching, seizures and partial or total paralysis. This causes irreparable damage to a dog’s nervous system, resulting in death.


Diagnosing CDV can be tricky as many of the symptoms that present themselves can be indicative of a wide range of illnesses. Therefore it is necessary to undertake a combination of tests in order to give an accurate diagnosis. These tests can include but are not limited to:
  • Blood tests
  • Imaging studies including x-rays and ultrasounds
  • Physical examination


There is no cure for CDV itself, but instead treatment revolves around easing symptoms and ensuring that further problems such as bacterial infections do not take hold. This is usually done in a hospital environment and may involve intravenous fluid therapy, medications and antibiotics.

Canine distemper is estimated to be fatal in around 50% of cases affecting adult dogs and around 80% of cases affecting puppies. When fatalities occur it is usually due to damage to the central nervous system which has resulted in complications.

Prevention is better than cure!

As with most illnesses, prevention is almost certainly better than cure. Vaccinations against CDV should be started in all puppies and continued throughout the life of your pet.

If you obtain an older dog then check with the shelter or current owner when it last had a CDV vaccination. If you are in any doubt at all then consult with your veterinarian to ensure that your pet receives the correct vaccinations.

Ongoing Care

Dogs that are suspected of having CDV should be isolated from any other dogs within the household, and you should ensure that your other dogs are adequately vaccinated against the disease. Your pet will need a warm, safe place to recover with food and water located nearby. Ensure that you regularly clean all of your dogs’ equipment with non-toxic cleaners.