Common Puppyhood Diseases

While preventing illness is every owner’s goal, your puppy may require veterinary attention for an illness at some point in its life. Most puppyhood illnesses are mild and not life-threatening, as is true of many childhood diseases. Early diagnosis and treatment are important in helping your puppy make a quick and smooth recovery. Illness is hard on puppies; the sooner they recover from an illness, the happier you will both feel.     

This section talks about some of the most common conditions affecting puppies.         

Viral Diseases                  

Distemper is a highly contagious viral disease of dogs, mainly affecting unvaccinated puppies. The disease was reported in Europe as early as the mid 1700s.           

Distemper is related to the human measles virus. While dogs will not get measles nor people contract distemper, this similarity in viruses is useful in allowing very young puppies to be vaccinated against distemper using a human measles vaccine.              

Distemper virus is shed in the feces, saliva, urine, and discharge from the eyes and nostrils of infected dogs. Aerosol and droplet exposure are the most common routes of infection.   

Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated dogs that are exposed to distemper virus may show signs within two weeks of exposure. These signs include fever, weight loss, anorexia, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, tremors, and seizures. The animal usually dies within one to three weeks after developing these signs. Fever, coughing, and nasal and eye discharge are the most common symptoms. Secondary infections, which occur commonly, cause pneumonia and a pustular (pimple-looking) dermatitis on the abdomen (which most owners mistakenly assume is the result of ant bites).             

Involvement of the nervous system is common in many dogs with distemper and is often what prevents recovery from the infection. Young puppies are especially prone to developing nervous system signs, including behavioral changes, seizures, paralysis, muscle twitching, and “chewing gum” fits.

Photo by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash

Diagnosis is usually made by the veterinarian based on the history and clinical signs. Most puppies with signs of distemper have had no vaccinations; others have had only a part of the vaccination series completed. Certain diagnostic tests aid in the diagnosis of distemper. The best one is analysis of the cerebral spinal fluid, which bathes the brain and spinal cord. Unfortunately, most owners will not pay $100 or more for this test. Blood tests can be used to check for antibodies to the distemper virus but are not 100 percent accurate and can be misleading. While a positive diagnostic test can be helpful, blood tests usually are not needed since so few diseases cause signs that would be confused with canine distemper in young, unvaccinated puppies. 

As one veterinary publication has stated, the lack of effective antiviral treatment creates the need for supportive care and a guarded-to-poor prognosis. All that veterinarians can do is keep the puppy well hydrated, fed, and warm, and treat or ideally prevent any secondary infections such as pneumonia, which is very common. Intravenous antibiotics and fluids, force-feeding, and a warm environment are used during the course of therapy if treatment is elected. If there are neurological signs, such as seizures, the prognosis is very grim. Most owners will euthanize puppies once neurological signs develop. While some puppies can be saved, most owners will not spend the money (often $500-$1,000) on hospitalization for a puppy with a poor chance of recovery and the possibility of lifelong complications such as epilepsy.         

Vaccination is very effective in preventing the disease. Most vaccinated dogs that are exposed to distemper virus develop a short-lived infection without showing signs of illness. Puppies 6 weeks of age are vaccinated with a measles vaccine. The puppy often has maternal antibodies he received from his mother that would interfere with his ability to form antibodies to a canine distemper vaccine. He is able to develop protective antibodies to the measles vaccine; however the protection is transient and a distemper vaccine should be given in two to three weeks (usually at 8 weeks of age, the time when he starts his puppy vaccinations).

Parvo Virus

Parvo virus is another devastating and potentially fatal disease most commonly afflicting young puppies. Discovered in the 1970s, this is a relatively new disease in dogs. It is similar to a viral disease of cats, feline panleukopenia virus. In fact, until a vaccine specific for parvo virus was produced, dogs were vaccinated against parvo virus with the cat panleukopenia vaccine.

Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated puppies are very susceptible to infection with parvo virus. The virus is contracted by contact with infected feces; people, toys, food bowls, and insects may also spread the virus if they transport infected feces to the puppy.

Clinical signs are seen within seven to fourteen days after infection. Vomiting, often severe, is seen first, followed by diarrhea which is often very bloody. Lack of appetite, severe depression, and dehydration occur rapidly, often within 24 hours afar vomiting. Temperatures are often elevated. Some young puppies may develop a cardiac form of the disease, in which case the only sign is sudden death from heart failure. This condition is not as commonly seen as when parvo virus was first discovered, since most puppies are vaccinated.           

The doctor can make a presumptive diagnosis based on history and clinical signs in a susceptible puppy. Additionally, an in-office test for parvo virus is now available. Blood tests and fecal analysis for the virus are also available at outside laboratories.     

Treatment is aggressive and supportive. Death is often due to dehydration or secondary bacterial infection and septicemia; therefore large amounts of fluids and antibiotics are given intravenously. Despite what many owners have heard, when treated early and aggressively most.


As a new puppy owner, you probably worry at the slightest thing that seems wrong. Don’t feel bad: you’re not alone. The following information may help you know when to call the doctor.       

What’s normal?             

  • An occasional sneeze.
  • An occasional cough.
  • One episode of vomiting or diarrhea, if no blood is seen and the puppy acts normal. 
  • Mild shaking when asleep. One skipped meal if the puppy seems normal otherwise.       
  • A small amount of clear discharge from the eyes if the eyes are not red.         
  • An occasional itch. What’s not

(Call your veterinarian immediately!):               

  • A puppy that’s sluggish, slow to wake up, or lethargic.
  • A puppy that shows no interest in several types of food canned, dry, human baby food.        
  • Red eyes, closed eyes, any eye discharge that is not clear.      
  • Excessive scratching.  
  • Shaking the head excessively.
  • More than one bout of vomiting or diarrhea. 
  • Blood in the vomit or stool.     
  • Abnormal size or shape to the abdomen.         
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing.             
  • Tumors, lumps, or bumps seen or felt on the puppy.
  • Blood coming from anybody opening

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Photo by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash