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Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases

Pathogen of the Month



March pathogen of the month:


April pathogen of the month:

Canine Distemper

What is it?

The American Veterinary Medical Association describes canine distemper as a contagious and serious viral disease that attacks dogs’ respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. It can also be found in wildlife – foxes, wolves, coyotes and other canines. It also has been reported in various wild cats as well as seals.

The increasing ability of Canine Distemper to cross species, infecting cats and seals, is of intensified interest to researchers due to its implications for the potential uncontrolled spread of the virus, with high lethality rates for wild animals.

Mode of transmission

The most common method of spread of the disease is via direct airborne exposure – typically involving sneezing or coughing – from an infected dog or wild animal. However it can also be transmitted via infected food or water bowls. Though CDV outbreaks could occasionally pop up in animal shelters, the virus persists primarily in wildlife populations, particularly in the Northeast where canine cases of CDV are extremely rare. It circulates among numerous carnivore species, causing die-offs of raccoons, grey foxes, skunks, coyotes, wolves, and other animals.


Canine distemper has a long history, first having been diagnosed in Europe in the 18th Century. The first vaccine was developed in the 1920s. Still, canines remain at risk either because owners do not have their pets vaccinated or due to young pets’ proximity to infected wild animals, which have not been vaccinated. The disease is also an ongoing concern in animal shelters and pet stores, if there is an unvaccinated specimen.

How is the disease controlled?

In the United States, the most common and also the most effective means of control of the spread of the disease is via vaccination, usually to puppies to enable them to build up immunities. States generally require that vaccination occur when a puppy is six to eight weeks old with periodic booster shots.

Why is there concern now?

A recent outbreak of a new strain of canine distemper has raised concerns in North America. A young dog imported from South Korea into western Canada was later found to be infected with the Asia-1 strain of canine distemper virus (CDV), which until then had not been reported in North America.

Scientists at Cornell's Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) identified the virus in samples from the dog, which they suspect was part of a shipment of animals rescued from a Korean meat market by an animal welfare organization. About 2 weeks after the sick dog's arrival, it developed a cough and was lethargic. Ten days later, it developed muscle twitches, then seizures and ultimately was euthanized.

Dogs that are already immunized against CDV likely are not at risk from the Asian strain, but if the virus comes into contact with wildlife, it may take a serious toll on wild carnivore populations.

Can canine distemper be cured?

There is no cure for the disease, which is why veterinarians place such an emphasis as vaccination as a preventive tool. The disease is often fatal, and dogs that survive usually have permanent, irreparable nervous system damage.

What is Kansas State University doing?

The university’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2018 prepared a video targeted at practicing veterinarians designed to acquaint them with the latest techniques for collecting nasal swabs to be used in the diagnostic process. A link to the video is  https://www.youtube.com /watch?v=mhBL2XzQCeo&index=3&t=0s&list=PLNjV05pK4JEUCABbmIQhKyJzuwk3HbFwF


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Sources: avma.org, cdc.gov, Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine