From time to time we have rescue dogs who are survivors of distemper. Our fosters and adopters love these pups as they often seem to really appreciate their second chance at life. The survival rate is not great, and pups that pull through are so incredibly special. The pups that we have met have really wonderful survival spirit.

If you are considering adopting a survivor, thank you for considering a pup with a little extra baggage. We hope this info helps!

What is canine distemper?

Canine distemper is a virus that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems, as well as the conjunctival membranes of the eye. The virus exists around the world and is passed from dog to dog through contact with fresh urine, blood, or saliva. It can be passed, for example, through coughing, sneezing, and sharing food or water bowls. While all dogs are at risk for distemper, weaker dogs are at great risk of contracting it; puppies younger than 4 months, immunocompromised dogs, and dogs who have not been vaccinated against it.
In adult dogs, approximately 50% survive. In puppies, approximately 20% survive. Symptoms include hard paw pads, hard or crusty nose, seizures, fever, and vomiting, There is no direct treatment, but support can be provided by boosting the immune system, treating any secondary infections with antibiotics, keeping the dog hydrated, and providing anti-seizure meds. Of course, each vet will have their own approach, and this is not “do it yourself” stuff. A dog may be contagious for the first 2-3 months and take 3-6 months to recover. During their recovery time, quarantine plans need to be considered. Once they are past their recovery time, their ailments are locked in.

Long-term effects of distemper in dogs

It is absolutely possible for dogs who survived distemper to lead a long, happy, comfortable life. Some dogs fully recover from the virus with few to no long-term effects or signs, while others display certain characteristics that will last throughout the rest of their lives. In most instances, these neurological effects do not have a significant impact on the dog’s quality of life. Some side effects that we have personally heard of include:
  • Involuntary tics, twitches, or muscle spasms are the most common signs seen in distemper survivors. One study estimates they may affect up to 40% of dogs who have survived distemper. The neurological tics may affect the face (causing winking), front or hind legs (causing hopping), or torso (causing a sway or shrug). They may become more pronounced when the dog is tired or stressed. It’s also common for distemper survivors to be more physically active/twitchy while sleeping.
  • Jaw chewing, like your dog is chewing gum.
  • Underdeveloped teeth (severe enamel hypoplasia), which we also see in pups where their mother had distemper
  • Lack of balance and coordination.

How you can help support your distemper survivor

There are various ways to offer support for dogs who have survived distemper. Note that biological differences mean that different dogs will respond differently to treatments, so you may need to spend some time figuring out what works best for your dog.
An anti-inflammatory diet
Most commercial dog foods are grain based, which can cause inflammation in the body. A raw, whole-food diet is more biologically appropriate and supports the brain and nervous system with essential fatty acids and proteins. Raw-fed dogs tend to be better hydrated, have strong immune systems, and healthier bowel movements.
To be healthy, a raw diet must be balanced. If you’re considering a raw food diet for your dog, be sure to speak to a raw food specialist (the staff at Back to the Bone are fabulous!).
CBD oil
While there is little in the way of scientific evidence to confirm the efficacy of CBD oil with canine distemper survivors, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it can help reduce chronic pain, anxiety, and stress. CBD oil can help relax your dog. Some of our fosters and adopters have noted that symptoms are lessened when the dog is less stressed or anxious. If you’re considering CBD oil for your dog, it’s best to choose one specifically formulated for dogs.
Regular exercise and massages
It’s important that your dog gets plenty of exercise and playtime, which can help stimulate the brain and cognitive function. It can also help with coordination. Massages can also help your dog’s muscles. Recently, foster dog Tingo enjoyed a bath with Epsom salts and his tics subsided for a bit.
This info sheet is intended to provide fosters and adopters with a basic understanding of the long-term effects that distemper may have on dogs and possible ways to offer support. DIBS Rescue is not liable for the information contained in it. If you have questions about distemper, please speak with your veterinarian.  Please ensure you clarify with them re: a dog with distemper vs. a distemper survivor.