How to Tell if a Dog Has Distemper

Dr. Joe Alcorn, M.S., D.V.M.

Dr. Joe Alcorn is founder of Care Animal Hospital in Temecula, California. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Colorado State University. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and his advice has been featured in large publications like Bustle and Martha Stewart.

Home » Blog » How to Tell if a Dog Has Distemper

Distemper in dogs is highly fatal and contagious. If you own multiple dogs at home, it’s important to detect them early on and separate the infected dog from the pack. That’s why you should know how to tell if a dog has distemper. 

How to Tell if a Dog Has Distemper

Dog distemper affects the digestive, respiratory, skin, immune, and nervous systems. Your dog may suffer from it for weeks up to months and if left untreated may highly result in death. In order to detect distemper early on and make necessary treatment, you have to know how to spot its symptoms.

An image of a sleeping dog

Canine Distemper Symptoms

Symptoms may appear early on and some may even show up to 14 days from infection. Canine distemper symptoms you have to look out for are:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Thickening or enlargement of feet and nose
  • Vomiting
  • Liquid discharge from the eyes and nose

If the distemper has progressed to later stages, your dog may exhibit symptoms related to brain inflammation and neurological damage. Symptoms of neurological damage are either of the following:

  • Muscle twitching
  • Motion similar to chewing gum
  • Excessive drooling
  • Head tilting
  • Circling
  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Seizures

If you notice any symptoms, it’s better to have me check your dog immediately. Some symptoms can be mistaken for other viruses or infections. It might result in your dog getting a severe case of symptoms.

Spotting Canine Distemper Symptoms

While it’s better to let me check your dog, you may never know if your dog is sick if you don’t know how to look for signs and symptoms of canine distemper. Below are some things you can do to detect canine distemper in your dogs.

Signs of Coughing and Sneezing

Distemper can attack the respiratory system triggering your dog to have bouts of coughing and sneezing. This is due to your body attempting to fight the infection affecting the airways.

It’s a mild symptom and may be mistaken for a mild sickness. It’s better to not take it lightly and observe your dog for other symptoms.

Check Your Dog’s Eyes and Nose

Once your dog starts coughing and sneezing, you might want to check its eyes and nose for any discharge. The amount of discharge may tell you how your dog’s immune system is coping with the virus.

The discharge is usually sticky and gummy. If both the eyes and nose have discharge, it’s more likely it has distemper. If it only has discharge in either one, then it might be another sickness.

Weakness and Fever

Dogs with distemper may also get a fever. The fever makes your dog feel weak and sluggish. It won’t have the energy to do its general activities. Your dog may prefer to just sleep or lay on its back.

It’s easy to spot a lethargic dog since dogs usually show excitement when seeing their owner by wagging their tails. So if you notice a change in the behavior of your dog, it might be related to distemper. 

Vomiting, Diarrhea, and Refusal to Eat

When your dog is feeling weak, it might also stop eating and this can lead to lethargy and dehydration. Your dog needs to eat and drink water so it has the essential nutrients for boosting the immune system.

You also have to be wary of diarrhea and vomiting as it also leads to dehydration. You might have to force-feed and drink your dog so it gets the necessary nutrients it needs.

An image of a dog who has distemper

Check Your Dog’s Pads

Any changes in your dog’s pads may be caused by a distemper. The common one is its thickening or enlarging. If you notice your dog walking strangely, then you better check its paw pads.

This generally shows up at later stages so if you failed to notice other symptoms, then the virus might have spread too far. It’s better to have your dog checked by me immediately. The hardening of the pads and nose may be lifelong and it can be prone to cracking during cold weather.

Damage to Teeth (For Puppies Only)

Damage to teeth is a symptom that only happens to puppies. It happens when the teeth of the puppies have not yet developed causing their teeth to deteriorate. This might cause problems with eating in the future.

When to Go to the Veterinarian?

I recommended having your dog checked at my hospital immediately if you noticed signs and symptoms of distemper. This holds true if you have different animals at home as it could spread between them.

Treating canine distemper requires intensive care so the earlier it is detected, the better the chances of survival of distemper. If you’re hesitant if the symptoms are distemper, below are some scenarios that warrant a visit to my hospital:

  • You have no knowledge or record of the vaccination history of your dog
  • Your puppy is at least six weeks old and ready for vaccination
  • Your dog mingled with another dog or animal who has distemper.

What Causes Canine Distemper?

Paramyxovirus is the cause of canine distemper. It can spread through contact with infected urine, blood, saliva, or respiratory droplets. Most transmissions are caused by droplets. It usually spreads through sneezing or coughing, or from sharing contaminated water or food bowls.

Canine distemper happens all year round and the virus is even resistant to cold. Most cases of distemper occur in late fall and winter.

Why Your Dog Has Distemper

Your dog may have distemper because it has interacted with infected dogs or other wild animals that are carriers of the virus. Your dog will more likely get them if they’re puppies or older dogs who don’t have vaccinations against distemper.

They may also get it from infected environments, food, and water. Hence, it’s important to practice proper hygiene in your dog’s home and be careful what it might put into its mouth and nose outdoors. 


Knowing if your dog has a distemper can help increase its chances of survival. Detecting the symptoms early on and managing it will help ease up your dog and be given it the necessary treatment for managing symptoms of distemper.