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Canine Distemper Virus

What is Canine Distemper Virus?

As its name implies, canine distemper virus (“distemper” or CDV) is a disease of domestic dogs. Skunks and raccoons — dogs’ distant cousins — can also be affected. Most of our pets are vaccinated against distemper, so it isn’t seen very often in domestic populations. Wild animals aren’t lucky enough to get vaccines, so skunks and raccoons can get sick.

What are the symptoms of distemper?

Initial symptoms of distemper can include fever, vomiting and diarrhea, and extreme thirst. Unfortunately, when wild animals aren’t feeling well they tend to hide. The later, more severe symptoms of distemper are neurological. That’s when sick raccoons and skunks, confused and disoriented, come out into the open and get found. Symptoms can include:

  • Wandering aimlessly, especially during the day
  • Lack of energy, or “sleepiness”
  • Losing balance, appearing “drunk”, or going in a circle
  • Approaching people, lack of response, lack of aggression, lack of awareness of surroundings
  • Seizuring — from mild twitching to full on grand-mal seizures
  • Goopy or green discharge from eyes or nose

Is there a cure for distemper?

Sadly, no. Dogs diagnosed in the very early stages of the disease may survive with supportive care, but they are likely to have neurological issues for the rest of their lives. Skunks and raccoons are usually not found with distemper until the very late stages. By that point, the neurological damage is permanent. Humane euthanasia is the kindest option.

How can I keep my pets safe?

As its name implies, canine distemper virus is contagious to dogs. However, it is very short-lived in the environment, and spreads through direct contact with fluids of infected animals. It is always a good idea to make sure your pets are up to date on their vaccines. That’s the best way to keep them safe.

At Toronto Wildlife Centre animals susceptible to distemper (like raccoons and skunks) are vaccinated against the disease before release.

What do I do if I found an animal I think has distemper?

Contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice. They can help you determine what’s going on and how best to help the animal.

There are many strains of distemper, but they only affect animals in the taxonomic order Carnivora. This means that other animals like squirrels (Rodentia), opossums (Didelphimorphia) and humans (Primates) cannot contract distemper.