Viruses: Distemper in Puppies


Morbilli viruses of family paramyxoviridae is the cause of distemper in puppies. New born puppies usually have maternal immunity from the mother, which lasts for at least 2–3 months. Most puppies not vaccinated against distemper are surely affected by canine distemper virus, as this disease is highly contagious and occurs worldwide.

Puppies are more susceptible to viral factors due to an immature immune response which improves as a dog ages. The virus spreads through the environment and via direct contact, aerosols (in the air) and via contaminated surfaces. Also some dogs may shed the virus for several months, even after recovery.

Puppies are usually affected from their time in a kennel when they come in contact with contamination of any form; food, air, water and aerosols.


Puppy distemper is mostly reported in puppies of age 3 – 6 months. The disease goes through 2 phases. As in adult dogs, the first phase of canine distemper may go unnoticed, but in the case of young puppies, most affected dogs show severe signs of lethargy, fever and anorexia.

In the second phase, the involvement of the lymphatic system makes the condition worse for young puppies. Yellow to red pustules (puss filled abscesses) can be noted on the abdominal surface and particularly at the inguinal (groin) region. Foot pads and the skin over nose gets hardened, and puppies which recover from canine distemper, usually have hard pads for their entire life.

Puppies may show signs of severe respiratory problems, rhinitis (inflammation of the lining of the nose), and labored or difficult breathing. Diarrhea and vomiting represents involvement of the gastrointestinal tract. These signs are more common in puppies as compared to adult dogs. Affected puppies may try to vomit, which could cause severe choking while breathing.

Nervous system problems such as a lack of coordination, twitching of muscles, convulsions, sensitivity towards light and noise are seen as last stage. Once puppies develop signs of nervous system distress, they usually do not recover, and the prognosis for such puppies is “grave”.


Distemper in puppies should be suspected if any febrile (fever) conditions occur along with systemic involvement. Clinical signs and history can help in this regard. Laboratory examination of blood, urine or sputum (sputum coughed up) may reveal the presence of a virus, which can be isolated for confirmation. Advanced testing techniques called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and Antibody or virus specific IgM can help in confirming distemper in puppies.


Fluid therapy is primary requirement for treating puppy distemper. High doses of fluids like ringer lactate or lactose solutions can be used. Puppies should never be orally administered with drugs, food or any liquid during course of disease, as it may cause severe and irreversible damage to gastrointestinal tract. In many cases, where puppies were orally administered, developed with gastroenteritis & intestinal ulcerations, which lasted for entire life & became fatal.

Antibiotics can be administered to puppies, but only after a series of sensitivity tests and trial doses.  Chloramphenicol, gentamycin and streptomycin are preferred for use with puppies.

Supportive therapy of multi–vitamins and minerals has proven to be very effective in puppies. Nutritional supplements can only be supplied after recovery and should be continued for at least 2 months after recovery, as an integral part of the diet.

There is also a homeopathic preparation of the canine distemper vaccine (CDV) which is designed to protect against distemper symptoms such as fever, diarrhea and those in the respiratory system. It works by providing support to the immune system and helps to reduce fever. The product, Vi-Pro Plus is specifically formulated to naturally prevent and treat distemper in dogs. Be sure to check with your veterinarian before trying any treatment since distemper is a deadly disease that needs to be supervised by a veterinarian.