As Amazon Associates, we may earn from qualifying purchases. See disclosure in sidebar.

Distemper Vaccine for Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

Score for Seniors:
Activity Level:
Weight: Pounds


vaccines and a dog

This article was updated on September 5th, 2023

One of the best things you can do for your dog’s health is to have them properly vaccinated. Vaccinations help to keep a dog from getting sick as well as protect other dogs by decreasing disease transmission. One of those diseases to vaccinate against is distemper. This is considered a core vaccine, or one that every dog should get.

How does distemper occur in dogs?

Distemper is a disease caused by a virus that can infect the respiratory, eyes, and even the brain and nervous system leading to lasting effects or even death. Distemper spreads through contact with an infected animal or their bodily secretions. The most common sources include wildlife (raccoons, foxes), unvaccinated dogs in public or private spaces, and dog shelters where the population is constantly variable and often comprised of dogs with questionable vaccine history.

The virus can become airborne when an infected animal coughs or sneezes, potentially infecting other animals that come in contact with the droplets in the air. The virus can also hang out on surfaces, waiting for an unsuspecting dog to come along. If a healthy dog sniffs, licks, or touches those infected areas, the virus can make its way into their body and start causing problems.

Signs and symptoms of distemper in dogs:

Since the distemper virus is capable of infecting various parts of your dog’s body, you may see many different signs, including:

  • Discharge from both eyes and nose
  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Reduced appetite
  • Fever
  • Convulsions / Seizures or other abnormal neurologic behavior like strange behavior or tremors

What is the distemper vaccine / how it’s administered

The distemper vaccine plays a crucial role in safeguarding dogs, from puppies to seniors, against this highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. Distemper is caused by a virus that can infect the respiratory, eyes, and even the brain and nervous system leading to lasting effects or even death. Vaccinating against distemper is the best way to prevent illness from this virus.

Distemper vaccine bottle for dogs

Distemper is usually part of a combination vaccine that can be given by your veterinarian starting as early as six weeks of age. It should be boostered throughout your dog’s life based on the type of vaccine you use and your dog’s lifestyle. It is essential to rely on veterinary professionals for quality vaccines and guidance.

Why you should vaccinate against distemper in dogs:

Vaccination is vital to protect individual dogs and contribute to what is called “herd health”. The concept of herd health is the idea that by vaccinating our pets, we prevent the spread of the disease amongst local pets and wildlife, thus protecting other dogs in the community.

How does the vaccine work?

The distemper vaccine stimulates the dog’s immune system to produce antibodies against the virus, providing protection if the dog is later exposed to the disease.

The initial vaccine in any series introduces the body to the virus in a safe way, prompting the immune system to recognize it as a potential threat. But it takes time for the immune system to master its response and build up a strong defense, and this is why a booster is necessary. Once the body has had the initial series, the immune system needs periodic boosters throughout adulthood to continue ensuring the immune system is primed and ready to protect against future exposures.

Failure to maintain boosters through adulthood may put your dog at risk for distemper if exposed, since enough time may have lapsed for the immune system to be less prepared to actually battle the disease.

Are there any side effects?

In nearly all cases, vaccine side effects are incredibly mild in general but especially when compared to the severity of the disease it protects against.

The most common side effect of the vaccine is mild soreness or swelling at the injection site, which typically resolves on it’s own. Other mild side effects include:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Mild vomiting or diarrhea
  • In extremely rare cases, a dog may have an allergic reaction to the vaccine

Distemper vaccine schedule (puppies/adult dogs):

While specific protocols may vary depending on the vaccine manufacturer, the veterinary office, and the individual patient, here are typical guidelines for the distemper vaccine series:

For puppies:

  • Series typically starts around 6 – 8 weeks of age; if your puppy is older than this, it’s important to start the series as soon as possible
  • After the initial vaccine, puppies should have boosters every 3-4 weeks
  • Most vaccine protocols carry over until the puppy is 16 weeks old, or until the puppy has had at least 3 – 4 distemper vaccines/combo shots total

For adults:

  • For unvaccinated dogs, or dogs with unknown vaccine history, an initial vaccine is given, followed by a booster in 3 – 4 weeks
  • For continued protection through the rest of the dog’s life, boosters are typically given every 1 – 3 years depending on your veterinarian’s protocols, your dog’s health status and lifestyle risks, and the vaccine manufacturer’s guidelines

Vaccine cost (including veterinarian fees):

The cost of a distemper vaccine can vary depending on geographic location, the type of veterinary clinic, and the quality of the products they use. On average, a vet exam can range from $50 to $100, and the vaccine costs around $20 to $30 per dose. Following the recommended vaccine schedule for puppies means an investment of about $300 to $500, often in addition to the cost of other vaccines such as rabies, Lyme, leptospirosis, and others.

For adult dogs the series costs less overall because fewer vaccines are required with a mature immune system. You can expect the adult series to range between $150 – 250 depending on certain variables.

Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.

While this may seem like a lot of money up front, the reality is a vaccine series helps protect your dog from a disease that could cost thousands to treat and may ultimately be fatal.

When should puppies get their first distemper vaccine?

Puppies should receive their first distemper vaccine at 6-8 weeks old, as outlined in the vaccine schedule above. Vaccinating a puppy earlier isn’t generally recommended except in animal sheltering environments where risk is high and the vaccination status of the mother is questionable.

The reason vaccination isn’t usually recommended until 6 weeks of age is because maternal antibodies (antibodies passed from mom to puppy) may be present and could interfere with vaccine efficacy.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Is the distemper vaccine safe?

The distemper vaccine is generally recognized as a safe vaccine for most dogs. Vaccine reactions in dogs are rare and mild when compared to the risks associated with contracting distemper. In some rare cases a dog may have a more intense immune reaction but this is entirely due to the individual dog’s immune system, and that dog will need special consideration for future vaccination.

How long does it take for the vaccine to become effective?

While the initial vaccine in either an adult or puppy series provides some limited protection, boosters are necessary to ensure full immunity. It typically takes a few weeks (after the booster vaccines) for full protection to develop.

Can an older dog get the distemper vaccine?

Yes, the distemper vaccine is safe and in fact recommended for older dogs. While older dogs usually have stronger immune systems there’s also an increased likelihood they’ll be exposed to an infected animal than a puppy would be. Vaccine titers are offered by some veterinarians and can help determine the body’s existing immune response if you want to test that before proceeding with boosters in an older dog.

Can a dog get distemper even after being vaccinated?

In most cases, vaccinated dogs will remain adequately protected from direct distemper exposure. In some rare cases though, vaccinated dogs could still contract the disease. Vaccines are meant to protect against certain diseases and while this often means the dog won’t get sick after exposure, sometimes the level of protection means the vaccine simply reduces the severity of symptoms and improves the chances of recovery.

Is the distemper vaccine required?

While not often legally required, the distemper vaccine is highly recommended for all dogs unless a specific individual can’t tolerate it. It may be required by certain facilities or organizations though, such as for dog boarding or grooming businesses, for dogs occupying assisted living facilities with their owners, for working dogs or therapy dogs, or under other circumstances.

WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]

How long is the vaccine effective?

The duration of immunity provided by the distemper vaccine can vary depending on the vaccine manufacturer’s recommendations, but boosters every 1-3 years are generally recommended for continued protection.


  • Dr Chyrle Bonk, Veterinarian

    Dr. Chyrle Bonk received her Master in Animal Science from the University of Idaho and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Oregon State University in 2010. She has over 10 years of experience in small animal veterinary practice, working for a veterinary clinic in Idaho.

  • Kate Howard, Vet Tech

    Kate Howard lives in Upstate New York, and received her degree in Veterinary Technology from Alfred State College of Technology in 2010. She has been a veterinary technician for 13+ years, and spent her career working primarily in general practice and veterinary emergency care. Kate has 3 dogs, a cat, and keeps a small flock of backyard poultry.

How useful is this page?

Help us improve. Click on a star to rate it:

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.