What Are the Symptoms of Canine Distemper and Should I Vaccinate My Dog?

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Symptoms of Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is a disease most pet parents have probably heard about. Veterinarians recommend vaccinating your pet when possible, however, it can be hard to make an informed decision.

So in this article, we’ll answer the following questions regarding vaccinating your dog against canine distemper:

  • What are the symptoms of canine distemper?
  • Can a dog get distemper if it’s been vaccinated?
  • What can I expect after my dog’s been vaccinated
  • Is a distemper vaccine necessary?
  • Is there a distemper-only vaccine?

Disclaimer: Please refer to the information in this article as a guide only. If you think your dog may be sick, it’s best to take them to your veterinarian for thorough diagnosis and treatment.

What are the symptoms of canine distemper?

The canine distemper virus affects a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous system and can cause the following symptoms:

  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Lack of energy and appetite.
  • Increased temperature
  • Coughing.
  • Material exiting the nose or eyes – watery or with pus-like consistency.
  • Neurological symptoms (these usually develop later on in the course of the disease) – incoordination, twitches, seizures, imbalance, and walking in circles.

The disease is serious, has no specific treatment, and in many cases is sadly fatal. The treatment mainly consists of relieving symptoms and stopping secondary bacterial infections. If a dog does survive, then they can suffer from long-term changes to their paw pads, nose, and teeth.

Can a dog get distemper if it’s been vaccinated?

Yes, although vaccinations are great, they are not able to 100% prevent your dog from getting distemper.

When you vaccinate your pet, you expose them to a killed or inactivated form of the infectious agent. The idea is, that since they have already been exposed to the disease-causing agent, then if they come into contact again, the response from their immune system will be faster.

This means that they will either not develop the disease at all (the best case scenario) or, they will only develop a milder form of the disease. 

Vaccinations are a great option pet parents have for helping to keep their pets healthy, and save millions of lives every year. 

Dog Relax Toys

Here are a few dog toys that might help calm your canine before vaccination:

What to expect after the distemper vaccine?

After a vaccination, you may observe a few changes in your pet.

Your pet may be a little sore where the needle went in and you may notice a small lump at the injection site. Similarly, they might be a little bit more tired, and eat or play less than usual. Don’t worry, this is usually just a result of their body reacting to the vaccine. 

The above are not normally anything to worry about and should only last a few days. If you notice anything serious, or you’re worried about your pet, it’s best to call your veterinarian.

In very rare cases, a dog can develop a potentially fatal allergic reaction to the carrier component of the vaccine. If you see any of the following anaphylaxis symptoms following a vaccination, take your dog to a veterinarian immediately:

  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Swelling in their face.
  • Breathing difficulties,
  • Raised, itchy bumps on the skin (hives).

If your dog reacts following a vaccination, it’s important to tell your veterinarian before any future vaccinations.

The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends the following additional tips to help keep your dog healthy:

  • Not taking a puppy out until they’ve finished all their vaccinations.
  • Only socialize your dog in places with strict vaccination requirements for entry.
  • Isolate your dog from other pets when they are unwell.
  • Keep your dog separated from sick pets and wild animals.

Is a distemper vaccine necessary?

Since distemper is a serious, and usually fatal disease with no cure, many veterinarians recommend pet parents vaccinate their pets against it. Vaccinating your dog reduces the chances of them developing a serious disease if they come into contact with the virus, and also helps reduce the spread of the disease in the environment.

If a vaccinated dog comes into contact with the virus, they are better protected as since they’ve already been exposed to the virus, their body can elicit a faster immune response. This means that they are less likely to suffer a serious course of the disease, compared to dogs who come into contact with the virus for the first time.

A dog with distemper is not only painful to watch for pet parents, and difficult to treat, but can also be expensive. Distemper is a serious disease that often requires hospitalization of a dog, and results in large vet bills. 

Helping to protect your pet by vaccinating them, not only helps protect your pet but reduces the chances of pet parents needing to pay large vet bills if a pet becomes sick.

Distemper is regarded by veterinarians as a ‘core’ vaccine. This means that they are of particular importance due to being an endemic disease, in terms of public health, or because they cause a serious disease. The other core vaccinations for dogs are canine parvovirus, canine hepatitis, and rabies.

Core vaccinations are recommended by veterinarians. Non-core vaccines refer to those that are optionally available or recommended depending on a dog’s potential exposure to a disease.

Is there a distemper-only vaccine?

Canine distemper is usually given as part of a combination vaccine which also includes canine adenovirus 1 and 2, canine parainfluenza virus, and canine parvovirus. 

A distemper-only vaccine is also available however it’s only used in specific situations as most of the time pet parents vaccinate their pet using the combined core vaccine.


Being informed about the options available to help protect your pet is a great way to keep them happy and healthy. Vaccinating your pet can greatly decrease the chances of them developing a serious disease, and is always worth thinking about.

Veterinarians also recommend treating your pet for parasites and taking them for regular veterinary dental and general checkups. 

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