Dealing With Canine Distemper Beyond Vaccines

Just like many of the illnesses we see in dogs or humans, distemper is a virus. That means antibiotics won’t touch it. It is similar to the measles virus and like the measles, a vaccine was developed way back in 1950.

Which Dogs Get Distemper And How Dangerous Is It?

Surprisingly, it still rears its ugly head every once in a while. How debilitating the disease is will depend on the immune status of the dog. So, once again, having your Shetland Sheepdog as healthy as possible is the best preventative.

Usually the most susceptible canines are pups anywhere from about three to six months old. However, adult dogs can get it as well. There are many dogs that may contract the disease but show such minimal signs as to go unnoticed.

This virus, unlike parvovirus, does not last long in the environment. It may last for a few days in warm weather and up to a few weeks in cold weather. It is also killed easily with disinfectant.

Contact with the canine distemper virus is usually by airborne particles (think: dog sneezing and lots of little moist droplets floating around in the air for the next few minutes) or contact can also be with fresh body fluids of an infected dog (think: sniffing, licking, eating pee, poo, or saliva from an infected dog).

What Does Canine Distemper Look Like?

The first symptom is a fever a few days after coming in contact with the virusAnd how many of us would even be aware of our dog having a fever if he didn’t also show other signs? So, this can go unnoticed very easily.

The fever breaks within a few days but returns in about a week. This time it comes with some respiratory issues: runny nose and eyes, cough. This could very easily be mistaken for kennel cough (which is a self limiting illness similar to the common cold in humans) except for the fact that kennel cough doesn't cause a fever.

Some dogs will develop blisters on the abdomen.

As the disease progresses, vomiting and diarrhea begin. 

A few weeks later, some, not all dogs exhibit neurological symptoms. It could be as minor as individual muscle twitching to more obvious things like a rapid chewing movement in the jaw,  repetitive movements like head shaking, and more seriously, seizures.

There is also the thickening of the foot pads (called hard pad disease) and nose leather. 

In puppies that have not had their adult teeth yet, the virus can kill the cells that make enamel and their permanent teeth will have very little or no enamel altogether.

As with most viral diseases, it can cause dehydration and secondary bacterial infections (meaning that the dog has been weakened enough that a bacteria hanging around which normally would not be able to do harm can now reproduce because the dog is so sick.)

Simplified Timeline Of Canine Distemper Disease

Day 1: Exposure to virus

Day 3-8: Fever develops

Day 7-12 Fever resolves

Day 8-9 immune response begins to fight the infection

Day 14-19: Fever returns with coughing, sneezing, runny nose and eyes followed by neurological symptoms

Day 14-35: death may occur in weakened dogs

Day 60-90: new neurological symptoms may surface. Dog continues to shed the virus for a few months then is no longer contagious.

Does My Sheltie Have Canine Distemper?

There are a variety of tests using blood, body fluids, or obtaining urinary bladder cells for examination. The bladder is a good test as soon as fever is noted for about the first 10 days and can be checked in the vet's office. Other tests are not always reliable and your vet will take into consideration the symptoms your pup is exhibiting.

A newer test (October 2007) is the IDEXX Canine Distemper test which seems more sensitive can be performed by your vet. It still has its limitations in that dogs vaccinated with the MLV (modified live vaccine) for distemper a few weeks before the test may yield a false positive. It also takes a few days to get the results. 

If there are only respiratory symptoms, it may or may not be distemper. IDEXX also has a “respiratory panel” test to distinguish among the variety of illnesses possible.

Just a word of caution: Not every dog that throws up has canine distemper. Not every dog with a wet nose has it either. I know it can get kinda scary to think of all the bugs out there ready to pounce on us and our dogs, and we can start seeing boogeymen under the beds but a good immune system can stop the virus in its tracks.


Your vet can administer IV or subcutaneous fluids for dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea, medications to calm those symptoms, and anticonvulsants for seizures.

As with any virus, there is no cure, per se. The dog has to fight with its immune system to rid the body of the virus.

You can have puppy vaccinations administered but be sure it is at the right time..

What Can I Do To Help My Shetland Sheepdog?

If you have not yet visited the vet, these are the things you could have on hand to help:

1.) A natural antidiarrheal clay to absorb toxins, Yerba Prima Bentonite

2.) Electrolytes to replace fluids lost with vomiting and diarrhea. Pedialyte Oral Electrolyte Maintenance Powder

3.) The homeopathic medication aconite (Aconitum Napellus, 30C Pellets). Aconite is for sudden, inflammatory conditions,

4.) But just in case that doesn't do the trick, I decided keeping this on hand. Colloidal Silver Plus (oral drops) as a general antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral.

5.) You can offer ginger tea to settle the stomach too.

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