Treating Canine Distemper: What is Canine Distemper and How is it Treated?

Canine distemper is a highly contagious viral disease in dogs.  Treating canine distemper can be a challenge even for veterinarians with decades of experience as it has no specific cure. It has a high mortality rate and can easily kill unvaccinated puppies. This disease which is also called the “Hard Pad Disease” or “Old Dog Encephalitis” can also affect adult dogs.


CDV of the Canine Distemper Virus is airborne and dogs can catch it by simply being exposed in the same space as dogs who are already infected with the virus. The virus can also be transmitted through coughing, sneezing, and sharing of food or water bowls.

Canine Distemper is caused by a virus of the same family as that of the virus that causes measles in humans and Newcastle Disease in birds but symptoms of these diseases are different from each other.

Symptoms of Canine Distemper

Depending on the strain of the virus, puppies and dogs who have contracted the disease may show the following early symptoms:

  • Green eye discharge,
  • Runny nose with green to yellowish nose discharge,
  • Fever,
  • Labored breathing,
  • Loss of Appetite,
  • And Lethargy.

Infected dogs may start exhibiting the following symptoms as the disease progresses:

  • Diarrhea,
  • Bloody stool,
  • Pneumonia,
  • Hardening of the foot pads,
  • Involuntary twitching of one or both hind or front legs,
  • Involuntary head bobbing,
  • Salivation accompanied by involuntary movements of the jaw as if the dog is chewing a gum,
  • Paralysis,
  • And seizures.

How is Canine Distemper Diagnosed?

Some veterinarians say diagnosing Canine Distemper by looking at the clinical signs is difficult since some of the symptoms are also seen in a lot of other diseases in dogs. But since Canine Distemper is a highly deadly disease especially in puppies, some veterinarians prefer to rule it out or have the dog who is showing clinical symptoms of distemper tested as soon as they can.

There two tests that can detect Canine Distemper in dogs:

Rapid Test Kit – This detects the distemper antigens or the actual virus. Samples used for this test are nasal or eye swabs, feces, blood, or spinal fluids.

ELISA – The Enzyme Linked Immunoassay (ELISA) detects distemper antibodies. Samples used for this test is the blood.

Some veterinarians believe the ELISA is more accurate compared to rapid test kits adding that in their experience, dogs who have shown clinical signs of Canine Distemper tested negative with the Rapid Test Kit but tested positive in the ELISA. The ELISA can also give an estimate on how long the infection has been. Do note that the ELISA can also show false negative if the dog being tested is too early on the infection since the immune system generally takes two weeks to produce antibodies for the disease.

The Phases of Canine Distemper

During the first or mucosal phase of infection, the infected dog may experience biphasic fever or fever that goes on and off, coughing, sniffing, eye and nose discharge that are often yellow to green. These symptoms are often overlooked and often passed as simple respiratory problems. This phase usually lasts for a week and the symptoms during this phase can also go away on their own as the disease goes on to a “latent” stage.

After a few weeks, the virus will then attack the dog’s body once again. During this phase, neurologic signs such as the following may start to appear:

  • Involuntary movement of the jaws as if chewing a gum,
  • Twitching of one or both hind legs,
  • Head bobbing,
  • Seizures,
  • And comatose.

During the neurological phase, the foot pads of the infected dog may also get hardened. As the disease progresses, the infected dog will experience ascending paralysis starting from the hind legs going up to the head. Once the infected dog reaches full paralysis, death follows.

How to Prevent Canine Distemper in Your German Shepherd?

The most effective way to prevent your German Shepherd from acquiring this disease is by having him vaccinated. The most common vaccine combination is the 5-in-1 (DHLPP) vaccine, which protects dogs from the following diseases:

  • Canine Distemper (D),
  • Hepatitis (H),
  • Leptospirosis (L),
  • Parainfluenza (P),
  • And Parvovirus (P).

This vaccine is given 3 to 4 times with two weeks intervals during puppyhood.  Booster shots are also given annually.

Unfortunately, there is still a very little chance for your German Shepherd to catch the disease even if he’s updated on his vaccines so keeping his immune system in good condition is ideal. Avoiding contact with infected animals and sanitizing if you think you have made contact with an infected animal may also help.

Heartworm Disease in German Shepherds

Treating Canine Distemper

Sadly, there is no specific drug or medicine that can directly kill the Canine Distemper virus and that makes the disease very hard to treat. Treatment often consists of managing secondary infections and boosting the immune system to help fight the virus. Treatment of secondary complications may include the following:

  • Antibiotics – For diarrhea and/or respiratory infection,
  • Pro-biotics – To help replenish the good bacteria in the dog’s digestive system,
  • Anti-convulsants – To help manage seizures,
  • Vitamin C and other immune system boosters – To help the dog’s body fight the virus,
  • Vitamin B complex – Since the Canine Distemper attacks the nerves, giving Vitamin B complex is helps repair the damage the virus causes in the brain, nerves, and spinal material.

Depending on who you ask, having a dog diagnosed with canine distemper is as frightening as being diagnosed with cancer. Years of research about the disease led to the discovery of the different treatment options.

Canglob D

Injecting Canglob D is the most common and conventional mode of treatment for Canine Distemper. Canglob D is an immunoglobulin, which is an actual immune system response of a body against an “invader”. Canglob D contains antibodies manufactured to specifically fight the Canine Distemper virus. This mode of treatment is only effective against the virus during the first phase.

Direct Shot of the Newcastle Disease Vaccine or NDV

The Newcastle Disease only affects birds and chickens. But the Newcastle Disease Virus is found to be related to the Canine Distemper virus. This method was accidentally discovered Dr. Alson Sears. According to, a direct shot of the Newcastle Disease virus can be effective in dogs older than 12 weeks who are not battling any other diseases. But this method is not effective in distemper-positive dogs who are already in the neurological stage. This method is also said to be less effective in certain dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Poodles, Irish Setters, English Bulldogs, Gordon Setters and Chinese Shar-Peis.

NDV Serum

In this method, the Newcastle Disease vaccine is still used. But instead of injecting the vaccine directly into the dog’s body, the vaccine will be injected into a healthy dog to provoke an immune system reaction. A serum is then collected from a donor dog. This serum will then be given to infected dog.

Spinal Tap

In this method, the Newcastle Disease Vaccine is injected on the spinal area to provoke an immune response. This is a highly sensitive procedure so dogs who will undergo this treatment must be sedated.

The use of Newcastle Disease Vaccine in treating Canine Distemper is still considered an unorthodox method in the veterinary world. Not all veterinarians will agree to do this procedure while some will do it only if the owner of the Canine Distemper dog insists to do so. The use of NDV vaccines is considered the last resort for dog owners in the hope of seeing their dogs recover from the deadly disease.

Recovery from Canine Distemper

Dogs who recover from the disease are recommended to be isolated and be separated from other dogs for at least two to three weeks.

Distemper dogs who showed neurological signs such as twitching, head bobbing, and seizures may retain these involuntary movements for the rest of their lives. Dogs who survive distemper will also need Vitamin B complex supplements for maintenance. Giving them Vitamin C also helps give their immune system a boost.

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