Disease: Canine distemper

This page provides general information about  this condition; reveal the text by clicking on  the green headers. Press releases, results from DWHC investigations as well as other useful documents and relevant literature can be found at the bottom of the page.


Canine distemper virus (CDV), a member of the Paramyxoviridae family of viruses, can cause lethal disease in a variety of species. It has a worldwide distribution and in most areas, the main reservoir host is thought to be the domestic dog (1). Molecular analysis of the virus shows that different strains of CDV cause disease in different species and in different parts of the world.

Susceptible species

In addition to infecting domestic dogs, canine distemper virus has also been detected in a range of wildlife species in Europe including foxes, wolves, stone and pine martins, raccoon dogs, badgers, weasels, pole cats, otters and the Euopean lynx (2). Other wild carnivores such as bears, pandas and wild cats as well as some non-carnivore species (peccaries, captive non-Asian marmots and non-human primates) can also be infected by the virus (3).

CDV and the closely related phocine distemper virus have both caused mass die-offs in harbour, grey and other species of seals (3,4).

Neonates and recently weaned animals are most susceptible to infection.

Signs in animals

Infected animals typically develop difficulty with breathing, diarrhoea and possibly neurological signs. Due to infection of the organs of the immune system, infected animals also develop immune suppression making them more vulnerable to other infectious diseases. In addition, in chronic infections there may be thickening (hyperkeratosis) of the skin of the foot pads and nose; due to this feature the disease is also referred to as ‘hard pad’ disease.

The nature and extent of clinical signs varies per species and age (disease typically being more severe in young animals); some animals can recover from the disease, and may act as wildlife reservoirs of infection (3).



Infection of animals

The main route of transmission of CDV is via inhalation of aerosolised infectious droplets. The virus replicates in cells of the immune system within the lungs then spreads around the body via the blood  to other immune tissues before infecting the gastrointestinal tract, brain and lungs.

CDV was also detected in fleas during an outbreak in Danish farmed mink and wildlife species raising the possibility that parasites may act is vectors in the spread of this disease (5).

Symptoms in people

CDV is distantly related to the virus that causes measles in humans. Human cases of canine distemper have not been reported, however, some researchers have associated Paget’s disease, an inflammatory bone disorder in humans, with CDV prompting the suggestion that it be recognised as a potential zoonosis (6).

Preventative measures

Owners are advised to vaccinate their pet dogs against canine distemper virus and discuss the possibility of vaccination of ferrets with their veterinary surgeon.

Surveillance of wildlife species for the presence of CDV infection is important in identifying and minimising the risk of outbreaks in wildlife and domestic species.



  1. Martinez-Gutierrez M, Ruiz-Saenz J. Diversity of susceptible hosts in canine distemper virus infection: a systematic review and data synthesis. BMC Veterinary Research. 2016;12:78. doi:10.1186/s12917-016-0702-z.
  2. Origgi FC, Plattet P, Sattler U, Robert N, Casaubon J, Mavrot F, et al. Emergence of canine distemper virus strains with modified molecular signature and enhanced neuronal tropism leading to high mortality in wild carnivores. Vet Pathol. 2012;49(6):913–29.
  3. Beineke, A., Baumgärtner, W. & Wohlsein, P. Cross-species transmission of canine distemper virus-an update. One Health 1, 49–59 (2015).
  4. Phocine distemper outbreak, The Netherlands, 2002. Rijks JM, Van de Bildt MW, Jensen T, Philippa JD, Osterhaus AD & Kuiken T (2005). Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2005, 11(12):1945-8. Click here to read this paper.
  5. Trebbien R, Chriel M, Struve T, Hjulsager CK, Larsen G, Larsen LE (2014) Wildlife Reservoirs of Canine Distemper Virus Resulted in a Major Outbreak in Danish Farmed Mink (Neovison vison). PLoS ONE 9(1): e85598.
  6. Infectious Diseases of Wild Mammals and Birds in Europe (1). Somerset, GB: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 October 2016.

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