How Does a Dog Get Distemper?

Posted by Dr. Roth on

French bulldog laying down, how does a dog get distemper?

Distemper is a dangerous, highly contagious yet preventable viral infection that affects dogs. The virus can cause several serious complications with a dog’s nervous, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems. Understanding how a dog gets distemper and what pet parents can do to prevent it, however, can help keep dogs safe. 

How Does a Dog Get Distemper?

Distemper is a highly contagious virus that can spread in several different ways. Many puppies and dogs catch it via airborne exposure, such as coming into contact with a sneeze or cough from an infected animal. Dogs may also contract distemper via sharing contaminated food and water bowls. 

In some cases, puppies can get distemper from their mother if she’s infected before they’re born. The virus may pass through the placenta to the puppies in utero. 


While these symptoms may not seem serious in the beginning, they can quickly worsen as the virus attacks the dog’s systems. Early symptoms leading to distemper include:

  • Lethargy
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Persistent cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

As some dog infections progress, symptoms may include:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Poor coordination
  • Thickening of paw pads
  • Pneumonia
  • Depression


Like most viral infections, there is no specific cure for distemper, but there are treatments aimed at controlling symptoms and preventing secondary infections. Recognizing the symptoms is essential for getting veterinary care as soon as possible. 

If a pet parent notices any of the symptoms above, they should contact a veterinarian right away, especially if the dog is not vaccinated against the disease. For a dog that is vaccinated and receives boosters every few years, presenting with one or two of the symptoms may not indicate distemper. However, it is still important to speak with a veterinarian to rule out possible serious illnesses. A vet can perform a thorough exam and run lab work to make a diagnosis. Then, they can recommend the best course of treatment and provide necessary dog health advice. A vet may recommend a combination of any of the following:

  • IV fluids 
  • Medications for vomiting and diarrhea
  • Antibiotics for infections
  • Anti-seizure medications to address neurological symptoms

Following a distemper diagnosis, the dog must be kept separate from other dogs. Doing so helps to minimize the spread of the virus. 

While distemper is often a fatal condition, some dogs do survive. Depending on their immune systems and how quickly they receive treatment, some dogs can recover in as little as ten days. For other dogs, neurological symptoms can persist for weeks or even months. Many dogs experience permanent neurological damage. 

Protect Dogs From Distemper

Distemper is highly contagious, and there is no cure. Fortunately, pet parents can take steps to prevent it. One of the best methods of prevention is with a vaccine. Young puppies receive a series of distemper vaccines to help build up temporary immunity. Every few years, dogs should receive a new distemper vaccine. Pet parents should also keep their unvaccinated puppy or dog out of situations in which they can contract it. 

Should a pet parent notice any symptoms of the virus, they should seek veterinary care right away. They can also speak with an online vet 24/7 at Fuzzy for dog advice, puppy advice, or to get answers for any of their dog health questions. With guidance, pet parents can help to ensure the optimal health of their dogs.

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