Distemper is a potentially fatal respiratory condition that affects dogs. The distemper vaccine, usually given to puppies, makes distemper preventable.

By Mindy Valcarcel
August 24, 2020
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Christina Reichl Photography / Getty

When you’ve fallen in love with a new furry family member, protecting her is the top priority. You make sure she’s fed, groomed, trained, and loved. The canine distemper vaccine is another important form of protection.

Canine distemper virus is “life-threatening and horrible,” says Kathryn Primm, DVM, of Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tenn. Distemper in dogs can cause gastrointestinal (GI) signs such as diarrhea and vomiting, difficulty breathing, and even neurologic signs. “These dogs are usually very sick. Dangers include death from any of the above causes,” Primm says. So prevention is truly lifesaving. And the vaccine is ready to do it. 

What Is Distemper in Dogs?

Canine distemper is a paramyxovirus. Measles and mumps are also included in this virus group. Dogs can transmit the disease to other dogs in several ways—from shared water bowls to sneezes—so vaccination early on is important, especially before you take your dog anywhere other dogs also go (like the dog park, boarding kennel, or to puppy playdates). Distemper takes hold in the respiratory tract, and in addition to dogs, many other animals can also transmit the infection, including foxes, wolves, skunks, and raccoons. So the danger of infection is out and about everywhere. 

What Signs of Canine Distemper Virus Should I Watch For?

The Merck Veterinary Manual says that signs of the virus follow the distemper timeline of where the infective virus replicates within a dog’s body, starting in the respiratory tract. After a dog is exposed to infective material that’s expelled from the nose or the mouth of affected dogs, the disease often begins with a fever, which subsides, but then rears up again. During this time, your dog may lose interest in eating.

After the fever, a variety of distemper signs may occur, including diarrhea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and neurologic effects. It’s common for a dog’s muscles to twitch or to experience convulsions, often characterized by drooling or an agitated jaw that resembles the act of chewing gum.

What Should I Do if I Suspect My Dog has Distemper?

Proper diagnosis from your veterinarian is key for getting your dog treated for distemper quickly and aggressively, since the disease can be deadly. If your dog shows signs of infection, or has been exposed to other animals who have it, call your vet immediately. Your vet will likely prescribe treatments that aim to manage symptoms and limit secondary bacterial infections, and might include antibiotics, electrolytes, analgesics, and anticonvulsants. But the Merck Veterinary Manual notes that no single distemper treatment is uniformly successful, and distemper treatments often fail. This is why vaccination against the virus is so important.

When Should My Dog Get the Distemper Vaccine?

Usually given as a part of a puppy’s initial vaccination series, the canine distemper vaccine is part of the DAPP vaccine, which protects against distemper virus, adenovirus, parvovirus, and parainfluenza virus. Your veterinarian will discuss the right timing for your dog to receive this vaccine.

General guidelines from the American Animal Hospital Association state that the vaccine should be administered in three doses starting at 6 weeks through 16 weeks of age, at intervals of two to four weeks. For dogs older than 16 weeks, two doses are recommended and should be administered three to four weeks apart. The vaccine is injected right under the skin. 

After the initial series of vaccines, your dog should be revaccinated (given a booster vaccine) after one year with additional booster vaccines given at three-year intervals after the initial dose.

The canine distemper vaccine “must be boostered for the puppy series, per the guidelines, and repeated on the schedule of your own vet,” Primm says.

Are There Risks for Giving My Dog the Distemper Vaccine? 

Any vaccine for your dog has risks, though they are uncommon and usually mild and short-lived. Possible adverse effects of vaccines might include slight pain or swelling where the vaccine is administered, a mild fever, and a reduced appetite or level of activity. Your veterinarian will help you know what to look for.

But the pros of getting your dog vaccinated against distemper far outweigh the cons. “The canine distemper vaccine is effective and safe in a veterinarian’s hands and, at the very least, will minimize disease severity but usually seems to be protective,” Primm says. 

Vets and animal experts agree that widespread vaccination is essential, especially since successful vaccine use has made the condition less common than it was even a few decades ago. But because different strains of the disease continue to emerge, and so many host animals can carry the disease, it’s up to pet parents to ensure we continue to keep up on our dogs’ vaccinations to avoid a resurgence of the virus. Canine distemper can ravage your dog, causing extreme adverse effects—including death—so it’s of the utmost importance that you talk with your veterinarian to ensure your dog is up-to-date on her DAPP vaccine.