What is Distemper?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2018
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Distemper is a disease that affects a wide range of wild and domestic carnivores. It is often referred to as either canine or feline distemper, and these two illnesses are frequently confused. They are, however, caused by two completely different viral agents.

Caused by a paramyxovirus, canine distemper is an extremely contagious disease. It affects animals in the canine family, including wolves, foxes, coyotes, and domestic dogs. Particularly widespread, the virus has a higher death rate in juvenile animals than adults. The virus is highly resistant to cold, causing a high number of dog infection cases in the fall and winter. By contrast, it affects wild animals more frequently in the spring and summer, as juveniles are less resistant to infection.

The canine illness is transmitted through droplets in the air or direct contact. It may also be transmitted by contact with contaminated objects and ingestion of contaminated materials. The virus is excreted in the feces and urine of affected animals.

Symptoms in dogs include coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea. Eye discharge, anorexia, and disturbances of the central nervous system may appear as well. Symptoms in wild carnivores include abnormal behavior and lack of fear, often resembling behavior seen in animals with rabies. Purulent conjunctivitis and nasal discharge may be evident as well. Some affected wild animals exhibit signs of neurological disturbances, diarrhea, vomiting, weakness, and labored breathing.


Supportive care is the only treatment for canine distemper. Vaccination of susceptible domestic animals and the removal of animal carcasses can help to control outbreaks. The reduction of wild carnivore populations can also help to decrease the availability of potential hosts.

Feline distemper is caused by a parvovirus. It is a highly contagious disease that affects members of the Felidae, Procyonidae, and Mustelidae families. Susceptible animals include, but are not limited to, domestic cats, bobcats, ferrets, weasels, skunks, and raccoons. The illness is potentially fatal, with a mortality rate close to 100% in highly susceptible animals.

This virus is shed in the body secretions of infected animals, and even animals that have recovered from the disease can shed the virus for months after recovery. Insects, such as fleas and flies, may also transmit the disease. Infection is caused by inhaling or consuming infective material.

Symptoms include high fever, depression, anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, and leukopenia. Severe dehydration is also typical. The disease may cause the same symptoms in susceptible wild animals or may lead to disturbances of the central nervous system.

Other than supportive care, no effective treatment is available for feline distemper. Treatment to help prevent secondary bacterial infection in infected animals may help to reduce mortality rates slightly, however. Prevention is key and all susceptible domestic species should be vaccinated.

Both the canine and feline illnesses affect many animals each year. In addition to domestic dogs and cats, the disease is particularly prevalent in raccoons. Neither is communicable to humans.


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