How to Care for Dogs with Distemper

Six Parts:Finding a good vetWater intakeAppetite and food intakeSurviving or managing phase 2 (neurological phase)NDV induced-serumPost distemper - battling secondary infections

The canine distemper is a viral disease that is most commonly associated with dogs and ferrets. It boasts an 80% mortality rate amongst puppies, with puppies from 3-6 months being the most susceptible as this corresponds to the decreased passive immunity obtained from the mother. Unfortunately, there are no specific treatments once a dog contracts this virus. All treatments are purely supportive and are there to help the dogs survive the ordeal. Vaccination is still the best prevention against this deadly disease.

Part 1
Finding a good vet

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    Seek professional help. If for some reason your pet is not vaccinated (for example, you took in a stray carrying distemper), the first thing to do would be to find a good vet that will care for your dog. A good vet will first make sure if your pet really has distemper, or just a random episode of a flu. In the long run, a good vet will give you lots of advice on how to keep the dog alive and this is crucial for your dog's wellbeing. On the flip side, the vet will also be the one that will tell you when to let go, since distemper often progresses into a deadly neurological phase which causes deterioration of motor skills, lack of coordination and severe seizures.

Part 2
Water intake

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    Help your dog to stay hydrated. Dogs with distemper normally lose their appetite and refuse to drink water. This might very well endanger the dog's life, considering it will lose a lot of fluids through nasal discharge and occasional vomiting. It's very important to maintain your dog's water intake. And for this, there is no other way than force-feeding.
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    Fill your dog's water bowl with the ideal amount of water it should be drinking within a day (consult your vet).
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    If your dog does not finish the water, force feed the rest using a syringe. Just like ill humans, when dogs are sick, they need a lot of fluids as well. This process isn't very pleasant, but do not let dehydration hamper your dog's ability to survive the distemper virus.

Part 3
Appetite and food intake

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    Expect your dog to want to eat less. A stuffy nose and fever ultimately leads to decreased appetite in dogs with distemper. Just like fluids, a healthy and balanced diet will assist your dog in the battle for survival.
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    Double check with your vet as to how much food your puppy/dog should be eating per day. Next, you can either:
    • (a) Soak some dry pellets in warm water to make it more appealing; and/or
    • (b) Boil some rice with chicken, carrots, celery and baby corn. Serve warm. Not only is this very appealing to most dogs, it is a healthy and balanced meal with extra fluids (soup) and fibres that are gastrointestinal friendly.
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    Use appetite boosters. At this stage, there is no harm in using appetite enhancers in suitable amounts to boost their appetite. An example would be the Virbac Nutri-Plus Gel, or any other gel that your vet recommends. Allow your dog to ingest the prescribed amount every day, either by licking the squeezed gel off your fingers, or just by smearing them on the dog's nose if it is not used to it. Your pet will come to love the gel in no time.
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    Force feed the ailing dog. If all else fails, force-feeding of soft food has to commence. The end goal here is to help the dog survive; you do not want inadequate nutrition to hamper your dog's recovering abilities.

Part 4
Surviving or managing phase 2 (neurological phase)

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    Expect neurological deterioration. Fingers crossed, once your dog pulls through the respiratory phase, you will have the neurological problems to worry about. Do note however, that most puppies fail to make it through the first phase, and even if they do, many lose the fight to convulsions and seizures at this stage.
    • The first and most common sign of neurological problems is that of "chewing gum fits", where the dog constantly engages in a chewing jaw motion that is uncontrollable.
    • Note that neurological symptoms do not appear until weeks, or even months later.
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    Keep your dog active, as much as possible. After the "chewing gum fits", your dog might start to have twitching limbs. Some dogs might feel confused and frustrated, as they cannot control any of these symptoms. To help your dog along, engage in suitable amounts of exercise every day, provided your dog is fever-free, eating and drinking well. Not only will it greatly elevate your dog's mood, but the muscle build-up is also crucial for it to be more in control of its bodily movements.
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    Give nerve vitamins /supplements to ease your dog's discomfort. Consult your vet for prescriptions. At this stage there isn't much you can do anymore, all you can do now is to maintain your dog's food and water intake and keep it happy.
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    Consider doing the right thing by your dog. Unfortunately, if the neurological symptoms worsen progressively over time and your pet starts to suffer from painful seizures, blindness and even paralysis, it might be time to consider humane euthanasia. Talk to your vet about the options.

Part 5
NDV induced-serum

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    Talk to your vet about the NDV induced serum. This is an entirely different story but it is definitely worth looking at, and absolutely worth a shot if your pet has yet to enter the neurological phase.[1]

Part 6
Post distemper - battling secondary infections

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    Come through the other side. If all goes well, your dog might very well survive the distemper virus. However, note that a distemper survivor will continue to have non-life threatening /life threatening signs throughout its life. Secondary infections as a result of immunosuppression may occur often, such as skin infections, ENT infections, root canal infections and many more, and each condition or illness will require care and attention. Fortunately for your furry friend, all these can be treated with an antibiotic course. Visit your vet regularly for progress check-ups.


  • Love and patience are essential during treatment. Because that wagging tail will remind you everyday that it was all worth it.
  • Do not despair if your pet doesn't pull through. Your pet's passing does not make you a useless owner, nor does it imply that you were not giving it your all. Distemper is a viral disease with an extremely high mortality rate, after all. The care you give during the illness is important, at all times.
  • Water can be force-fed by syringing water through the crevices of their teeth. This eliminates the need to open the dog's mouth, which is a pain for some owners, and the dog will swallow much easier as well.
  • Always keep the dog's fevers under control. Having some dog pain medication at bay would be handy for emergency situations.


  • Paracetamol is not suitable for canine consumption.
  • Be careful so as to not prod the dog's throat with the feeding syringe. Syringe down the water/food and allow the dog to swallow before the next syringe.
  • Use caution when force feeding water or soft food. This requires patience, as you do not want any form of food or fluids entering the dog's lungs.
  • Consult the vet if ever in any doubt about the use of medications and other related subjects. Do not administer any form of medication without the vet's consent.

Sources and Citations

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Categories: Canine Health