The Dangers of Distemper

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Those of you that follow SlimDoggy know of our dog Tino and if you’ve read Tino’s Tale of Tails you would know the story of his rescue and the fact that he had distemper when we first got him. He was one of the lucky ones, his brother Bernie who we also rescued wasn’t so lucky and he died from the disease. We knew the odds weren’t great since the disease has about a 50% mortality.
Distemper is a highly contagious virus spread through the respiratory system. The virus is shed by infectious dogs in all bodily secretions, so any contact with infected animals is potentially dangerous. Distemper is the leading cause of infectious disease death in dogs. It also strikes raccoons, wolves, foxes, skunks as well as the common house pet, the ferret.
Early vaccinations will prevent puppies from contracting the disease, but if not immunized or without the full course of treatment, they are left vulnerable. We believe that Tino & Bernie were abandoned at an early age and were probably not vaccinated. They lived in open wilderness area rampant with coyotes, racoons and other wildlife, so it’s no surprise they contracted distemper.

Tino and Bernie, sick as dogs, but still getting up to greet me.

Tino and Bernie, sick as dogs, but still getting up to greet me.

The vet immediately recognized distemper’s initial signs in Tino & Bernie – lethargy and a runny discharge from the eyes and nose. Their fever was also high – over 103. The typical course of the disease after the initial fever is to spike a 2nd fever accompanied by the discharge which eventually turns thick and mucusy. They may also develop pus filled sores on the stomach, nausea, diarrhea and a dry hacking cough.
The symptoms may abate and return over time as the disease runs it’s course. Eventually, in severe cases it attacks the gastrointestinal & nervous systems of the dog and the dog may develop seizures and die.
There is no cure for distemper although dogs with it should be seen by a veterinarian and treated with antibiotics to prevent other bacterial infections from taking hold. They may also be feed intravenously and given fluids. The course of the disease is 4-6 weeks, if the dog survives.
There is a certain strain of distemper that causes the dogs to develop “hard pads” a thickening of the skin on their feet and/or their noses.
We rescued Tino & Bernie in the initial stages of the disease and they followed the text book progression pretty closely. We monitored them closely, taking their temperature, applying eye drops and nose drops daily, just trying to treat their symptoms and keep them comfortable. They spent a couple of nights at the vets getting fluids through IV, but then took a turn for the better and we were allowed to bring them home. There were good days and bad days. Some days Tino wouldn’t eat and some he was starving and ate voraciously. Bernie was always much stronger than Tino and we thought for sure if either of them made it, it would be him, but that was not the case. During their 5th week with us, Bernie took a turn for the worse and started having mini-seizures. We knew that was a sure sign the disease had hit his brain. Even though we had never given a thought to euthanization, we knew Bernie was beyond recovery at that point.
Surprisingly, shortly after Bernie left us, Tino began to improve and made a full recovery with no ill effects other than a slight hard pad thickening effect on his nose. He went on to live another 13 years with us and died peacefully from old age under his favorite tree in our backyard.
Distemper may be uncommon due to advancements in vaccinations, but it can still happen. Puppies are especially vulnerable, so it’s imperative to keep them away from possible sources of the disease until fully immunized. The following resources provide additional advice on keeping your dog safe.


Additional Resources:

Overview of Canine Distemper (Merck)

An Overview of Canine Distemper (Cornell)

Distemper in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatments

Canine Distemper in Dogs

Canine Distemper In Your Dog

New Test Detects Canine Distemper in Recently Vaccinated Dogs


We are joining the Thursday Barks and Bytes Blog Hop Co-hosted by our friends at 2Brown Dogs and Heart Like a Dog. Grab the badge and join the fun!


I’m joining BlogPaws in celebrating Pet Health Awareness Month. The Hop will be running all month long.


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  1. Excellent information and a first hand account of dealing with the disease. I think people forget how horrible it is. When I was a kid, distemper was the dog disease that was most feared.
    2 brown dawgs recently posted…Thursday Barks And Bytes–Fall Back?My Profile

    • My grandfather raised collies and I remember it being talked about a LOT especially since we lived in the country too.
      mkob recently posted…The Dangers of DistemperMy Profile

  2. Wow, how sad, but what a lucky dog Tino was. We had no idea what distemper does to a dog. We have all been vaccinated and never had to live a “hard life”. Thanks for sharing.
    Emma recently posted…Lip Fold Surgery And DogsMy Profile

  3. What a good heart you have to take in 2 dogs with medical issues. How hard it must have been on you to lose Bernie. So sorry for your loss.

    • It was heartbreaking. Even though we only had them a few short weeks, we were so invested in getting them healthy. He was the first dog that I remember losing, so that made it hard too. Thank God Tino was such a great dog.
      mkob recently posted…The Dangers of DistemperMy Profile

  4. You guys have lived one of my biggest fears. I love the initial euphoria of a puppy, but I also have a lingering worry until they’ve completed their vaccination rounds.

    • I never thought too much about it until this happened. I”m sure they didn’t have their vaccines – they were dumped, but even so its a danger.
      mkob recently posted…The Dangers of DistemperMy Profile

  5. Oh what a horrid thing for our poor pups to have.
    Thank you for the great info
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
    Jenna,Mark “HuskyCrazed” Drady recently posted…How important is to trim my dogs nails?My Profile

  6. Distemper is a vicious illness. As a child, my family adopted an adorable puppy from the pound. The sweet baby had distemper and passed away within a couple of days. It was heartbreaking.
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  7. Oh, so sorry to hear you lost Bernie even though it was so long ago. I’m sure you still miss him. I did not know much about distemper, so this post was a good reminder to take these diseases seriously. I think in our vaccination world I sometimes take it for granted that dogs will be safe from disease.
    Lindsay recently posted…Best pet stain and odor removerMy Profile

    • Most pets would be safe I think, but if you let their vaccines lapse, then I think you open up a possibility.
      mkob recently posted…The Dangers of DistemperMy Profile

  8. That’s so awful that you had to go through that experience with them; I’ll admit the only thing I knew about distemper before reading this was that it’s a vaccination my dogs have gotten. I didn’t realize how devastating it was, it seems you don’t hear too much about it. Sorry to hear about Bernie but it’s amazing to know Tino improved and ended up living such a wonderful long life.
    Jen Gabbard recently posted…9 Tips to Help Your Adopted Senior Dog Adjust to a New HomeMy Profile

    • We were pretty shocked when the vet told us – never even crossed our minds – you just don’t think about it.
      mkob recently posted…The Dangers of DistemperMy Profile

  9. thank you for sharing your experience with Distemper. I’m sorry Bernie didn’t make it but glad Tino did and live a great life. My boss just said today that she has never seen distemper but is fearing that she may see it as more and more people aren’t vaccinating because they think vaccinating their animals causes problems. What disease is the lesser of two evils?
    Sand Spring Chesapeakes recently posted…Thursday Barks And Bytes~A Little Of This And ThatMy Profile

    • Well, with a 50% mortality with distemper…I’m still vaccinating.
      mkob recently posted…The Dangers of DistemperMy Profile

  10. I’m so sorry you went through this. Having our pets ill or injured is never easy, but when they are small puppies it’s even worse. The good thing is that Bernie was with you, and he was loved in the end.

    Thank you for sharing this in the blog hop. I did not know exactly what distemper was, just that it was deadly.

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