Vaccinations Part II: Canine Distemper Virus

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Canine Distemper Virus is a severe and life-threatening disease that affects the nervous, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems of infected animals. It is carried by domestic dogs and wildlife, such as raccoons, coyotes and skunks. Although routine vaccination practices have made the once-common disease now rare, it periodically resurfaces in the wild animal population and can be spread to susceptible pets.

Our neighboring Henderson County, N.C., has recently experienced an outbreak of canine distemper virus in its raccoon population, and has asked citizens to report any unusual behavior in wild animals to the Sherriff’s Department.

Symptoms in infected wildlife closely resemble those of rabies. Affected wildlife often lose their innate fear of humans, may act overly tame or disoriented, and may wander around during daylight hours.  Although humans cannot catch distemper from affected wildlife, humans should never approach a wild animal that is exhibiting abnormal behavior! Any wild animals exhibiting abnormal behavior should be considered rabies suspects, and local authorities should be contacted.

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Canine distemper infection manifests as two phases, known as the early-onset “mucosal phase,” and the later “neurologic phase.” Early symptoms of infection in pet dogs include yellow/green discharge from the eyes and nose, decreased appetite, coughing, and fever.

As the mucosal phase progresses, it can cause pneumonia, vomiting and diarrhea, and thickening of the nose and foot pads. Vomiting and diarrhea may cause severe dehydration resulting in death in the early phase of the disease.

The neurological phase usually occurs one to three weeks after the mucosal phase, although it can occur months later or not at all. The neurologic phase frequently begins with rapid snapping of the jaws known as “chewing gum fits,” and later progresses to seizures and often death. Other symptoms associated with the neurologic phase include tremors, loss of balance, and weakness.

There is no cure for canine distemper. It is also difficult and expensive to definitively diagnose.  Diagnosis is usually based on clinical signs and patient history. Treatment consists of supportive care to minimize secondary infection and prevent dehydration. Infected dogs that have been successfully treated often have permanent nervous system damage.

Although the disease cannot be cured, it is very important to seek veterinary treatment if your pet has symptoms of distemper. It may save your pet’s life, and it will decrease the risk of transmission to other animals.

Fortunately, vaccination is very effective at preventing canine distemper infection. Vaccination stimulates the immune system to fight off the virus before it has a chance to infect the body. Starting at sic to eight weeks of age, puppies should be vaccinated every three weeks until they are 16 weeks old.  Until a puppy has been fully vaccinated, it should not be allowed into environments where it may contact wildlife or unvaccinated dogs.

Dogs should be re-vaccinated every one to three years after receiving initial vaccines. Your pet’s lifestyle can affect susceptibility to the disease, so your veterinarian will tailor your pet’s vaccination schedule accordingly.

For more information, contact your veterinarian, or visit


Dr. Kelly Sulik owns and operates Animobile Mobile Veterinary Services in Tryon, N.C. She can be reached at