Distemper In Dogs: Is It A Death Sentence?

Distemper in dogs

Distemper in dogs is all too common and can spread like wildfire to other animals. And it can be deadly … but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Especially when there are ways to prevent it and even more natural ways to help your dog survive it.

What Is Distemper In Dogs?

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is a highly contagious viral disease. It’s caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological systems of puppies and dogs​. It affects multiple body systems and organs. And often there’s a misdiagnosis before arriving at distemper as the cause. That delays treatment in the crucial early days and weeks of the disease.
This virus attacks and grows within the white cells (lymphocytes and macrophages) of the blood and lymphatic system. That’s why it’s able to spread throughout the body. It also grows in the cells that line the intestinal tract.

Distemper affects domestic dogs and other animals such as ferrets, skunks, foxes, coyotes and raccoons. There’s a feline distemper virus but the two diseases are not related.

What Causes Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper comes from the paramyxovirus virus. It’s spread through infected secretions and excretions. They include respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing, and through feces, urine, blood, saliva, mucus and eye discharge. Your dog can pick it up from contaminated objects like toys and food and water bowls.

Is Canine Distemper Deadly?

Yes. It can be deadly and often is. The disease has a mortality rate of 50% in adult dogs, and 80% in puppies because of their immature immune system.

Death rates are high because of the delayed diagnosis … as symptoms don’t appear for a week or more. And the symptoms suggest other ailments. But if diagnosis is quick before symptoms progress, dogs can survive.

Dogs can reach the terminal stage for distemper about 2 to 4 weeks after infection. Older dogs with a more mature immune system can last several months. At the end of life when the illness attacks the nervous system, dogs suffer from seizures, paralysis and hysteria. With the nervous system affected, most dogs die within days.

Can Humans Get Distemper? 

No, they can’t. Distemper, canine parvovirus and heartworm can’t spread to humans. Humans have a different genetic makeup from animals. And that prevents these viruses from mutating and binding with the necessary cells to reproduce in humans. So if your dog gets distemper, you and your family aren’t at risk. 

Can A Vaccinated Dog Get Distemper?

Yes, it’s possible vaccinated dogs can get distemper. No vaccination offers 100% protection from disease. But if you get the distemper vaccination for your dog, you should know it’s very effective. Your dog only needs one distemper vaccination, given at the right time, for a lifetime of protection.

RELATED: How one distemper vaccination protects your dog for life …

8 Ways To Prevent Canine Distemper Naturally

There’s no magic remedy for distemper but your dog can overcome it or avoid it altogether with a healthy immune system. The severity of distemper depends on the health of your dog. A healthy dog can successfully fight off distemper with no long-term effects. In an immunosuppressed dog, the symptoms can be severe and there’s a higher risk of death. If you practice these pillars of good health, you’ll strengthen your dog and his immune system before disease strikes. 

1. Avoid Toxins

Start from puppyhood by avoiding harsh medications, flea and tick treatments, antibiotics and minimize vaccinations whenever possible. These stress your dog’s entire body. And they wreak havoc on his microbiome where you’ll find 90% of his immune system. Plus, you don’t want your dog’s liver to spend more time filtering toxic meds than aiding in the digestion of his food. 

2. Get Exercise

You also want to make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. And ensure your dog maintains a healthy weight.

3. Feed A Whole Food Diet

Always feed a healthy, natural diet with whole foods and raw meat and lots of antioxidants to support your dog nutritionally. That way there’s much less stress on the digestive system and more nutrients provided to your dog. This is especially true if you’re caring for a pet with distemper. Kibble is high in carbohydrates and devoid of nutrients so it’s supplemented with synthetic vitamins and minerals which aren’t bioavailable in your dog’s system. Real food is the best foundation for your dog’s health. 

RELATED: How to start your dog on a raw diet ...

4. Include Herbs For Immunity

As a preventative and to strengthen your dog’s immune system add these herbs:

  • Echinacea
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Ashwagandha
  • Oregon grape
  • Pau d’arco

5. Add Colostrum

Add colostrum to boost immunity. It helps your dog’s body fight viruses, bacteria, yeast and fungi. Colostrum also contains antibodies for harmful bacteria like E coli, Salmonella, Rotavirus, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, H pylori, and Cryptosporidia

6. Include Medicinal Mushrooms

A blend of several nutrient-rich mushrooms bring cancer-fighting, antioxidant and immune-boosting benefits to your dog … especially when he’s fighting an infection … and a serious disease like distemper.

Always make sure you buy a product that contains whole mushrooms. That way you’ll get the highest amount of beta glucans … the medicinal properties of the plant. Some mushroom supplements are mycelium, which is only part of the mushroom, often grown on grain. Mycelium contains lower levels of beta glucans and higher levels of starch. 

RELATED: Here are the top 4 ways to boost your dog’s immune system …

7. Use Antiviral Plants, Foods And Supplements

These healing plants have anti-viral properties that aid in fighting infections related to distemper. Plus they have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal strengths. If you think your dog’s been exposed to distemper, give him some of these foods.

Of particular importance are:

  • Olive leaf
  • Echinacea
  • Oregon Grape
  • St. John’s Wort
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Goldenseal
  • Dandelion
  • Chlorophyll

And you’ll want to include these anti-viral foods:

  • Sea vegetables
  • Microgreens
  • Berries
  • Apples
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Kale
  • Green tea
  • Manuka honey

RELATED: 11 reasons to feed your dog these vegetables …

8. Use Homeopathic Nosodes

Nosodes have been in use since the 1920s … and effective long before vaccines appeared. They’re based on the homeopathic principle of like cures like. Distemperinum is made from the secretions of a dog ill with distemper. Veterinary homeopaths often advise the use of nosodes to protect dogs from distemper without the side effects and illness associated with vaccines. Most homeopaths suggest giving them during times of likely exposure. So if you hear of an outbreak of distemper in a kennel, clinic or your community, nosodes offer protection to your dog during these times of likely exposure. 

You’ll need to contact a homeopathic veterinarian to buy nosodes and get instructions on how to use them. Find one at

RELATED: Learn more about how nosodes can protect your dog from disease … 

Stages Of Distemper Symptoms In Dogs

If you think your dog has been exposed to distemper, you need to be vigilant about watching and recognizing symptoms. Prompt treatment is important.

The distemper virus often takes hold of your dog’s body in three distinct stages. Each stage takes a few days to a week to appear. That can delay diagnosis and lifesaving care. Each stage appears as a separate set of symptoms.

Stage 1 Distemper Symptoms

Signs of distemper begin with symptoms of upper respiratory disease including coughing, sneezing, fever, and eye and nose discharge. You or your vet might think it’s kennel cough or another respiratory tract infection. This is what you’ll see:

  • Fever
  • Redness in the eyes
  • Pus-like discharge from eyes
  • Thick nasal discharge
  • Drooling
  • Lethargic
  • Anorexia
  • Coughing

Stage 2 Distemper Symptoms

Once your dog gets through the coughing symptoms, he’ll look like he has a digestive upset, with vomiting and diarrhea. And then he may seem to be getting better. But the virus is spreading … leading to infections and new symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Discharge from the nose
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Change in breathing rate
  • Pneumonia
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Stage 3 Distemper Symptoms

Just a week or 2 after his initial respiratory symptoms, your dog can develop neurological issues like spasms, chewing motions in the jaw, head tilt, seizures, even partial or complete paralysis. This is when you and your vet realize … it was distemper all along.

In stage 3 distemper, the disease attacks the central nervous system, so initial symptoms get worse and others will appear:

  • Head tilt
  • Circling
  • Partial or full paralysis 
  • Seizures
  • Repetitive eye movements
  • Severe conjunctivitis
  • Heavy yellow mucus from the nose
  • Muscle twitching
  • Convulsions
  • Increased salivation and chewing motions
  • Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
  • Bad smelling diarrhea
  • Skin eruptions on the belly or hind legs

You’ve lost precious time. And your dog’s been contagious since the coughing symptoms began.

Distemper Symptoms In Puppies
You don’t expect to have a sick puppy so everything out of the ordinary can be a potential symptom. When several symptoms arise, don’t hesitate to contact your holistic or conventional vet. Waiting can be tragic because 80% of puppies with distemper don’t survive. 

These are things to watch for: 

  • Fever – as high as 105 degrees
  • Eye discharge 
  • Nasal discharge  
  • Coughing
  • A tired, sleepy and lethargic puppy is a sick puppy
  • Not wanting to play or exercise.
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Bouts of diarrhea
  • Poop that smells really bad
  • Neurological problems that exhibit as staggering and confusion
  • Spinal chord swelling
  • Thickening of the foot pads

Getting your dog diagnosed can be the beginning of lifesaving care. Be sure to let your vet know that you suspect distemper as it’s contagious. She’ll tell you how to take precautions to stop it from spreading at the clinic and in your neighborhood. 

How Do Vets Test For Distemper?
With so many symptoms, systems and organs involved, it can take time to narrow down the diagnosis to distemper. The following procedures and tests, in combination, lead to the diagnosis.

  • A detailed history of your dog
  • A comprehensive exam
  • Blood tests to check red and white blood cell counts
  • Tests for organ function
  • Chest x-ray to confirm pneumonia if suspected
  • Urinalysis

If your vet suspects distemper, she may recommend one of these specific tests.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)
Dogs without previous history of distemper (or distemper vaccination) are good candidates for a PCR test. This involves blood and urine testing, or a swab from the eye (called a conjunctival sample). But it will not distinguish between a dog infected with distemper and a dog vaccinated against it.

CDV Quant RealPCR Test
In February 2017, another more definitive test became available. The CDV Quant RealPCR Test gives actual levels of the vaccine strain present. This allows results to differentiate between the distemper vaccine and the actual distemper disease.

Immunofluorescence Assay (IFA)
The IFA test is only positive for the first three weeks after infection. That’s a problem because distemper often isn’t suspected until neurological signs appear … which can take 3 weeks.

What To Do If Your Dog Has Distemper

If you suspect distemper, an immediate diagnosis by your vet is the difference between life and death. And whether you proceed with conventional veterinary medicine or follow a holistic approach, you need to know … there are no effective drugs that kill the distemper virus.

Treatment for distemper, whether conventional or holistic, needs a veterinarian to monitor your dog’s condition as soon as he’s diagnosed. In many cases your dog will need to be hospitalized. Your vet needs to react to changes and the progress of the virus through your dog’s body. She needs to avoid drug interactions and monitor him for secondary health issues. Your dog also needs isolation from other animals in a place that’s cleaned thoroughly and often.

Conventional Veterinary Treatments For Distemper

Once you’ve got a confirmed diagnosis of distemper, a treatment plan needs to begin immediately. Unfortunately, with conventional medicine, that plan will include strong medications to stop secondary infections. These drugs will tax your dog’s weakened system even further. Here’s what your vet will likely use to support and try to save your dog:

  • Antibiotics to prevent secondary infections
  • Drugs to control vomiting, diarrhea
  • NSAIDs to reduce fever and inflammation
  • Various means to loosen and clear lung secretions
  • Anti-seizure medication for neurological issues
  • Fluids to prevent dehydration
  • A feeding tube to provide nutrition

In dire situations when distemper has progressed (often because of delayed diagnosis) encephalitis can develop and become serious. This is swelling of the brain and leads to brain damage in puppies and dogs. Encephalitis often leads to a euthanasia decision. 

But there are natural remedies that can be preventive and supportive without being toxic to your dog

Natural Treatments for Distemper In Dogs

Treating distemper, whatever approach you choose, isn’t easy. That’s why you’ll often read that canine distemper is incurable, and that treatment is limited to managing secondary disease and controlling neurological symptoms. 

So don’t try to treat distemper by yourself. It’s essential you get help from a qualified professional with experience in the disease. Homeopathy may offer the best chances for your dog’s treatment.

Homeopathy For Canine Distemper
Homepathy has a history of success in managing distemper. Leading veterinary homeopath Richard Pitcairn DVM PhD founded the Pitcairn Institute Of Veterinary Homeopathy, where most US veterinary homeopaths trained. 

Dr Pitcairn recommends several homeopathic remedies to manage distemper through the stages of diagnosis and the spread of the disease. Dr Pitcairn says he’s treated distemper conventionally (using antibiotics and other drugs, as well as fluids) … but he believes conventional treatment increases the risk of encephalitis, which often ends in the patient being euthanized. Dr Pitcairn has experienced recovery from distemper in a few days to a week for dogs treated with homeopathy. 

Caution: You must work with a veterinary homeopath to follow this plan. You’ll need a professional to guide you through the process and to select the best remedies for your dog’s specific symptoms at different times through his illness.  

When To Restrict Food During Distemper
Before getting into remedies, Dr Pitcairn’s first “rule” is that it’s crucial not to give your dog solid food while he’s in the acute stage of distemper. This is to help prevent complications like encephalitis, so it’s important. 

Dr Pitcairn says if your dog has a fever above normal* you should fast your dog on vegetable broth and pure water. Continue this for a day after your dog’s temperature is normal. And if your dog’s fever returns, fast him again. Make sure he always has pure, fresh water available. 

*Normal temperatures for dogs are 100.5F to 101.5F or 38C to 38.6C. Test morning and night because temperatures rise in the evening. 

Vitamin C For Distemper
Dr Pitcairn strongly recommends vitamin C for dogs with distemper. Dose as follows:

  • Puppies and small dogs – 250 mg every 2 hours
  • Medium dogs – 500 mg every 2 hours
  • Large or giant dogs – 1000 mg every 3 hours

Note: Don’t dose at night. Your dog needs to rest (and so do you!). Once the fever is gone, double the time between doses. Continue with vitamin C until your dog has fully recovered. 

Homeopathic Remedies For Distemper
Homeopathic treatments focus on stages and symptoms of distemper. Dr Pitcairn recommends some of the following remedies. Your homeopath may prescribe some of these remedies, or use different ones depending on your dog’s individual symptoms. Follow your homeopath’s instructions carefully. 

  • Distemperinum 30C: This is the distemper nosode, made from tissue from a diseased animal. It’s often the most effective remedy for the early stages of distemper. 
  • Natrum muriaticum 30C – Early, sneezing stage.
  • Pulsatilla 30C – Conjunctivitis stage with thick eye discharge.
  • Arsenicum album 30C – Advanced stage distemper, with rapid weight loss, weakness.
  • Hydrastis canadensis 6C – Advanced stage distemper with thick mucus discharge from nose or down throat.
  • Psorinum 30C – Recovery stage, with poor appetite, skin eruptions.

As your dog recovers, Dr Pitcairn also recommends giving …

A herbal tincture of Avena sativa (oats). It’s a good nerve tonic to help a dog weakened with distemper. Give these amounts twice daily: 

  • 2-4 drops for small dogs or puppies
  • 4-8 drops for medium dogs
  • 8-12 drops for large dogs

Fresh grated garlic helps dogs with continuing digestive symptoms like diarrhea. Add these amounts to food 3 times daily:

  • ½ small clove for small dogs or puppies
  • ½ large clove for medium dogs
  • 1 whole clove for large dogs

Provide Digestive Support
A puppy or dog with distemper will have a distressed digestive system severely affected by diarrhea and vomiting. Probiotic and digestive enzyme supplements will support and strengthen the digestive system. Probiotics replace the good bacteria that are overwhelmed by the distemper virus.

RELATED:  Here’s how soil based probiotics can help your dog …  

Soothe Eye Inflammation
Puppies with distemper will suffer eye inflammation and discharges that can lead to permanent damage. So you’ll need to soothe them and keep them clean. To do this, soak a piece of thick gauze in a cup of distilled water with ¼ tsp of sea salt. Gently clean the eyes once or twice a day or as needed. Then add a drop of olive or sweet almond oil to each eye for healing.

After-Effects of Distemper In Dogs

Dogs that survive distemper often have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage called chorea. Survivors may have these after-effects:

  • Muscle spasms or twitching
  • Depression or reduced mental ability
  • Incoordination or deterioration of motor skills
  • Seizures may develop and become progressively worse
  • Head jerking or bobbing up and down
  • Paralysis

Again, homeopathy with guidance from a professional is a good option to help your dog with recovery. 

There are 2 other effects of distemper. One is enamel hypoplasia (meaning there’s no development of enamel on the teeth) which requires great attention to diet and dental care. The other is thickened nose and footpads (hyperkeratosis) which can thicken and crack and lead to infections.

A dog that survives distemper can live a fairly normal life … or he may suffer persistent seizures. 

RELATED: Manage seizures with these natural options …

How Long Is Distemper Contagious?

Within 5 days of infection by distemper, a dog becomes contagious. But he won’t show any signs of sickness for a few days or up to a month later. This is a problem if you don’t know your dog has been exposed to distemper. And he can pass on the virus to other animals

Distemper is then contagious for 1 to 6 weeks. Dogs who survive distemper can continue to shed the virus for 2 to 3 months after they recover.

How Long Does Distemper Stay In The Environment?

Distemper doesn’t survive long in the outside environment … especially in sunny, warm conditions. It may last a few weeks in cooler shady places. Inside at room temperature, it will only survive a few hours.  

How To Disinfect The Distemper Virus From Your Home

The virus will dissipate inside your home in a few hours but you’ll still want to clean. While conventional sources will suggest bleach as a disinfectant against viruses (including parvoviruses), it’s extremely toxic. This is especially true for a dog weakened by illness.

Instead, you can mix 2T of castille soap and 15 drops each of lavender and lemon essential oils in 1 ¾ cups water and ¼ cup white vinegar. You can use this to wipe down surfaces and clean bowls, floors, surfaces and toys. Add a few drops of lavender and lemon essential oil to the laundry when you wash your dog’s bedding. 

Distemper is a terrible disease for your dog to have. But by practicing good health at all times, you’ll build his immunity and give him a fighting chance at successfully beating this disease.


Ek-Kommomen, C., et al. Outbreak of canine distemper in vaccinated dogs in Finland. Veterinary Record. Vol. 141, Issue 15 p. 380-383.

Naveenkumar, C., et al. Conium Maculatum as a Homeopathic Medicine in Canine Distemper Infected Dogs. Indian Veterinary Journal. June 2019.

Horowitz, Sala. Integrative Health Care For Pets: An Overview of Today’s Treatments. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. Dec 2003. 317-321.

Pyankov, Oleg V., et al. Inactivation of Airborne Influenza Virus by Tea Tree and Eucalyptus Oils. Aerosol Science and Technology. Volume 46, 2012 – Issue 12.

5 minutes a day. Healthier Dog.

Get important health plans from vets & experts. It’s natural and it’s free.


Get instant access to easy-to-make and affordable recipes. Plus get new recipes delivered right to your inbox.

Recipe Cards for Making Raw Dog Food

Related Posts