Canine distemper is a highly contagious viral disease, caused by a virus which affects a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems. Pet owners are urged to be cautious, as this disease can be spread among domesticated dogs.

The SPCA explains that although dogs are the most commonly affected, Canine Distemper affects other carnivore species, including the bat-eared fox and African Wild dog.

“These infected animals can be the cause of the spread of this disease to domesticated dogs. Within the residential environment, the virus circulates amongst the unvaccinated dog population, which highlights the need for herd immunity to be created by vaccinating all puppies/dogs,” the SPCA writes on their website.

The virus is spread from dog to dog through direct contact with bodily secretions like nasal fluid, fresh urine, blood or saliva. The virus can remain on clothing, blankets, and food bowls, which aids in its transfer. Quarantining and disinfecting these items with household disinfectants like bleach is thus essential when treating distemper cases.

Even as an infected dog recovers over the weeks, it can still carry the virus and further contaminate others if not properly quarantined. They can be contagious for about three months after infection, according to the SPCA.


Dogs may appear normal for several days after infection. Initial symptoms include a runny nose, coughing, lethargy, watery eyes, loss of appetite and a sore throat, and a temperature of about 39.7°C. The dog is contagious to other dogs by this stage. 

Over a few days, the symptoms may worsen to enflamed tonsils and diarrhea. After about four weeks, the disease can begin to affect the brain, causing twitches and more severe convulsions. These convulsions can be so frequent and violent that they could lead to death.


In order to protect your dogs from this disease, it is important to have your dogs vaccinated with the distemper shot, as well as all the general necessary health shots from as early as six weeks. Secondly, you should remove a diseased animal from the other animals to avoid the spread of the disease. Make sure to routinely clean and disinfect your home or anywhere the dog spends a lot of time to remove any possible virus from the living environment. 

Unfortunately, there is no available medication to completely treat the virus. Instead, supportive treatment is the focus to help build up your dog’s immune system and make them as comfortable as possible.

Canine distemper can be fatal, although some dogs have survived it. For those that survive, there may be long-lasting effects like seizures, permanent brain damage or nerve damage.

Should you require urgent assistance with your dog, please call 021 7004158/98 or After-hours on 083 326 1604 for help. Alternatively, bring your dog to an SPCA clinic for consultation with a qualified veterinarian.

For more information, visit the Cape of Good Hope SPCA’s website.

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