Distemper in Dogs

This horrible disease of the nervous system is still with us. Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.

Dear Dr. Nichol,

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I adopted a beautiful Labrador Retriever cross puppy from an animal shelter. Everything was great for the first week, then he stopped eating, had pus in is eyes and nose and quit playing. Our veterinarian said that little “Brandy” has distemper and that he may die. We thought distemper was all but wiped out. How could this happen?


Dr. Nichol:

Brandy’s story is really tragic and fairly common. Young puppies are the least likely to survive. Be sure to follow his doctor’s advice: keep his nose and eyes clean, keep his antibiotics on schedule, and be sure he eats-force feed him if necessary. Good nursing care is essential. I recommend weekly rechecks to the doctor; changes in treatment are sometimes necessary.


How could this happen to your puppy? Since the advent of distemper vaccine in the past 30 years, this disease has become less prevalent. In recent years, its incidence may be increasing-especially in animal shelters. Even the best run shelters have large volumes of dogs coming through-many of them carriers of this deadly virus. Not only does it cause symptoms like those that Brandy has, the distemper virus can ultimately reach the nervous system causing muscle twitching, convulsions, “chewing gum fits”, and death. It is a really horrible disease. The only good news is that prevention works well.


All puppies need a series of three vaccinations starting at age 6-8 weeks. These are usually given in combination with a few other vaccines; parvo being the other vaccine of serious importance. Adults dogs are also susceptible-they need vaccination boosters annually.


In Brandy’s case, it sounds as though he was exposed while he was still at the animal shelter. It took several days for his symptoms to develop. Vaccination after exposure has little if any value. Right now you are doing the best for him that anyone could possibly do. If he survives, he will be immune to distemper for life. Keep your hopes up. I share your concern.