Can Dogs Get Distemper if They’ve Been Vaccinated?

By Ruthie Bently

Pet owners are required to get their cats and dogs vaccinated against the rabies disease, and there are other vaccinations our pets get depending on their owner’s preference and veterinarian’s recommendations. The distemper vaccination is not a required vaccination in the United States, but it is strongly advised by veterinarians because distemper can be fatal in certain cases.

A dog can contract distemper from a vaccination and this is known as vaccinial distemper; it is exceedingly rare but is possible. I spoke with my vet, and in his 32 years of practice he has never seen a dog contract distemper from a vaccination. If a dog contracts distemper from an inoculation, it is a situation where the dog’s immune system has already been severely compromised by something else.

The distemper virus is related to measles in humans, and in days gone by they used human measles vaccine to immunize puppies. A dog contracts distemper by coming in contact with an infected dog’s bodily secretions such as drool, discharge from a sneeze or cough, even urine; it is introduced to the body through the mouth or nose. In places of the world where vaccines are not commonly used, distemper can affect any age dog.

The dogs that are most at risk for distemper are usually puppies with an incomplete series of vaccinations or a dog with a questionable vaccination record (i.e. a rescued dog, feral dog, puppy mill dog). A puppy can receive some immunity through the colostrum in its mother’s milk, but this immunity can wear off by the age of 16 weeks if they have not been vaccinated. A dog that contracts distemper may have been housed with rescue dogs that may not have been vaccinated for distemper.

Distemper attacks the mucous membranes of an animal first and begins with the respiratory tract. Symptoms seen can include mucous-like discharge from the nose and eyes, poor appetite, fever, coughing and pneumonia. Then it moves on to the intestinal tract and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. From here it attacks the central nervous system and these symptoms include limb weakness, tics, imbalance, tremors and seizures. In advanced cases of distemper it attacks the brain and causes encephalitis. In extreme cases it causes death. While distemper is not curable, some pets may recover.

Many vets use a modified live virus (MLV) vaccination called DHPP, a combination vaccine that vaccinates for distemper, parvovirus, hepatitis and parainfluenza. A modified live virus is less expensive, and you may only need one dose for it to be effective. The downside of a modified live virus is that it can become active and cause a health issue called neurodistemper. This can occur between ten and twenty one days after a modified live vaccine for distemper is administered. So, yes, a dog vaccinated for distemper can under certain conditions contract distemper, but as previously mentioned it is usually due to an immune deficiency already in a dog’s system.

There is another form of the distemper vaccine called a recombinant format, where a harmless live virus is used as a carrier for the part of the distemper virus that stimulates the immune system’s response. The advantage of using a recombinant form of the distemper vaccination is that no distemper or distemper encephalitis will occur from vaccination.

Distemper is such a virulent virus that it can run through a species population very rapidly. Before you consider skipping your dog’s distemper vaccination, you should be aware there is NO cure for distemper at this time. Dogs cannot get distemper from cats, and cats cannot get distemper from dogs, as they are two different diseases. However, dogs can get distemper from many wild canid carnivores: badgers, ferrets, raccoons, foxes, feral dogs, wolves, coyotes, mink and skunks. As a responsible pet owner, do you really want to take the chance of not vaccinating your dog and having them contract distemper?

Read more articles by Ruthie Bently

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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9 thoughts on “Can Dogs Get Distemper if They’ve Been Vaccinated?

  1. My puppy received the Newcastle spinal tap 8 months ago and is recovering well from her distemper. There is a cure – unfortunately the treatment is still in its experimental stage because there is not enough funding to do proper research.

    kindheartsinaction.com your pup doesn’t need to die from distemper!!!!

  2. PLEASE NOTE: IMPORTANT CORRECTION TO THE ABOVE FOR CAT OWNERS!!!

    Though canine and feline distemper are entirely different viruses, FELINES CAN CONTRACT THE CANINE DISTEMPER VIRUS (CDV) (but canines cannot contract feline distemper).

    Though cases of CDV in house cats have been documented mainly under experimental and/or induced settings, there IS SIGNIFICANT EVIDENCE that house cats are INDEED SUSCEPTIBLE TO CDV (see: “our findings indicate strong circumstantial evidence of common CDV transmission from infected dogs to unaffected cats.” – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC96116/ )
    Though CDV in felines under natural conditions (i.e. in the real world/in the wild… not during a scientific experiment) has been seen only in large cats, such as leopards and tigers, research indicates that it IS POSSIBLE for domestic house cats to contract canine distemper and to then suffer fatal illness from it. Theory on why this so rarely occurs, even though it is possible, rests mainly on the idea that CDV is already a rarity among dogs due to modern pet vaccination practices, so the idea of a cat then contracting it is even more unlikely. Indeed, the only setting where CDV is actually still prevalent is a shelter/kennel environment (because incoming stray dogs may not be vaccinated against CDV and they are also are more likely to have been exposed to it than other dogs are). Given that cats and dogs are not integrated in shelter/kennel environments, domestic felines are therefore kept almost entirely isolated from potential CDV carriers.

  3. there is a cure for distemper. Its done by either the Newcastle Disease Vaccine via I.V., Spinal tap, or NDV induced serum. Please research it. There is HOPE and information needs to be spread to EVERY VET OUT THERE! ITs very easy to treat using the NDV Serum if given before the 6th day of infection with the disease!
    Link to learn more about the serum and NDV protocols to treat distemper can be found at: http://www.kindheartsinaction.com
    Please look into this! You could save lives by introducing this to your vet, or by locating a veterinarian near or around you who has the treatment available! The serum is made not bought, and every vet has the ability to make it!

    1. My dog has been sick for 2 weeks and been to the vet 6 times during this time period. She has been being treated for a bacteria infection and been given pain killers and antibiotics and booster shots. We live in Germany right now and no one can figure out what’s wrong with her. I’ve been doing major research and she has very detailed symptoms of distemper. She is at an animal hospital in Nuremberg since yesterday and they are going to do a spine and brain fluid test to help figure out what is wrong with her. I had to request they do a distemper test. Is this uncommon that they wouldn’t think to do this test on their own? She’s only 16 months old and has had vaccinations as a puppy and is usually in great health. Since she has had these shots as a pup and been taking antibiotics for two weeks to fight bacterial infection that she would have more immunity to the disease?

  4. We are living in East Africa (Tanzania) and just had to put our 7-8 year old dog down on 1 March 2012 due to the resulting progressive symptoms of what appeared to be distemper. Both our dogs have full vaccination records and have presented over the last few months with a disease course that looks exactly like distemper. Nandi was a very strong and firey dog in her days of health, but deteriorated to a point of not being able to stand or easily hold up her head. There are many many stray, non-vaccinated dogs in our area and perhaps a modified version of the virus has immerged here in TZ. It is not clear how these reportedly vaccinated dogs contracted the virus; however, i highly recommend that people do vaccinate their dogs against distemper as it is a very sad course of decline. Our other dog is showing mild signs such as discharge from the eyes, but is still eating and has not show any neurologic signs to date. We pray he remains strong and can clear the virus.

  5. I didn’t know it wasn’t required. But then I guess the only one that really is required is the rabies. Great post and very informative. Take care and have a great day.

  6. Ferrets are not wild, and are not canids ( badgers, mink, skunks, etc are not canids either, though they ARE wild ;) ). Just FYI.

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