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Belgian Malinois lying on owner's bed under the blanket.
Courtesy of Eudyptula / stock.adobe.com

If you follow the news at all, you have likely been hearing a lot about measles. With outbreaks of measles on the rise in the United States, people are understandably concerned about how this highly contagious disease could affect their families, including their dogs. This has many pet owners asking: Can dogs get measles?

Fortunately, the short answer is no. Dogs cannot get measles or transmit the virus to humans. But they are susceptible to canine distemper, a virus in the same family as measles. If not treated, canine distemper can be fatal or cause permanent neurological damage in dogs.

What is Measles?

Measles is a virus belonging to the family Paramyxoviridae. In humans, this disease causes symptoms such as coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, and rashes. Although measles spreads rapidly between unvaccinated humans, the CDC Centers for Disease Control reports that no other animals are affected by this virus. This means that your dog cannot contract the measles virus or spread it to you.

What is Canine Distemper?

Canine distemper virus, or CDV, belongs to the same viral family as the measles virus. Dogs affected by CDV display a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Ocular and nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Stumbling or walking in circles
  • Head tilt
  • Convulsions
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Abnormal jaw movements, sometimes called “chewing gum fits”
  • Hardening of the paw pads

The disease is primarily transmitted by direct contact between dogs, or by aerosolization of the virus through coughing and sneezing. While CDV does not affect humans, many animal species are susceptible to it, including domestic dogs, foxes, wolves, ferrets, skunks, and bears.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for canine distemper, which is one reason why this disease is so serious. Instead, treatment typically involves supportive care such as fluids, antibiotics, and management of symptoms until the disease has run its course. In many cases, distemper can be fatal or cause permanent neurological damage in dogs who do survive it.

Canine distemper is highly contagious, but it is preventable through vaccination. According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s vaccination guidelines, distemper is a core vaccine, meaning it is strongly recommended for all puppies and adult dogs.

What About the Canine Measles Vaccine?

If you have done your own research, you may come across references to a Canine Measles vaccine. Although dogs do not get measles, this vaccine was previously used to protect very young puppies against distemper. This was necessary because maternal antibodies — the immunity passed from a vaccinated mother to her puppies — would inactivate the CDV vaccine if it was given while the puppies were still young, leaving them vulnerable to infection. Since adult dogs were not vaccinated for measles, the Canine Measles vaccine would provide a measure of protection for the puppies until they were old enough for the maternal CDV antibodies to wane.

More recently, scientific advances have led to the development of vaccines that are better able to overcome maternal antibodies. The current CDV vaccines are typically given at intervals of 3–4 weeks until the puppies reach 16 weeks of age. This schedule ensures that the puppy obtains adequate immunity as the maternal antibodies wane. Because modern CDV vaccines are more effective, the Canine Measles vaccine is now rarely used.

Although measles and distemper belong to the same viral family, measles does not pose a threat to dogs. Canine distemper, on the other hand, is a serious and highly contagious illness in dogs, which can be prevented through appropriate vaccination. If you have concerns about canine distemper, your veterinarian is your best resource to help keep your dog protected.

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