Explained: Parvo, Distemper, Hepatitis & Kennel Cough

Updated July 24, 2021

What do the diseases we protect your dog from actually look like?

Click here to see vaccination protocols for dogs or continue reading to learn about these important illnesses.


distemper vaccine development
See page for author [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A feared disease of dogs for hundreds of years, distemper is easily spread via infected secretions. It starts with a fever, lethargy and a thick discharge from the eyes plus occasionally a cough, vomiting and diarrhoea. The disease then can seem to improve before progressing to severe nervous system signs.

Dogs usually die from pneumonia, paralysis or seizures. Survivors often show signs of permanent brain damage. Treatment is supportive via fluids and antibiotics.

How common is distemper?

Before vaccination, vets saw distemper every day. Around two thirds to three quarters of these dogs would die. The development of effective vaccines made it a rare disease in Australia.

Distemper appears to be increasing again, probably due to low vaccination rates. An Australian study for the years 2006-2014 found 29 confirmed and 19 suspected cases, always in un-vaccinated dogs (Wyllie et al, 2016).

Infectious Hepatitis

Canine hepatitis is caused by an adenovirus which was once a common cause of death of young, unvaccinated dogs. The signs of liver failure are severe but not easy to diagnose without blood testing. Sometimes the dogs develop ‘blue eye’ due to infection in the eye. Treatment is supportive.

How common is viral hepatitis?

As above, only now found in areas where preventative medicine for dogs is very poor or nonexistent.


Parvovirus is unique for the tremendous toughness and persistence of the virus. It is passed in faeces and can easily remain infective for over 12 months under Adelaide conditions.

It has an incubation period of around seven days during which infected dogs spread the virus before becoming sick themselves.

The disease starts with a high fever and a characteristic lack of white blood cells, Once the vomiting starts it is followed by a profuse and often bloody diarrhoea a day or two later.

Death comes swiftly without prompt fluid and electrolyte replacement, and antibiotic cover. With veterinary care most adult dogs survive after 7-10 days in hospital but mortality rates in puppies are distressingly high.

How common is canine parvovirus?

Parvo appeared in 1978 and has since become the most dangerous disease of dogs in Adelaide. Most years see an outbreak and some can affect widespread areas.

Bordetella & Parainfluenza

Canine Cough or Kennel Cough is an infection of the upper respiratory tract and trachea (windpipe) and is one of the most contagious diseases we see. It is caused by two agents: Bordetella bronchiseptica and parainfluenzavirus.

B. bronchiseptica is a bacteria in the same genus as B. pertussis, the cause of whooping cough in people. It produces a severe, repetitive, hacking cough and fever. In adult dogs the disease is distressing but rarely fatal; puppies are at higher risk.

Parainfluenza in dogs is a very similar disease. Both diseases are spread by airborne particles or shared food or water.

Treatment is supportive but antibiotics and antiinflammatories can lessen the severity.

How common is canine cough?

Extremely. We regularly see dogs who catch it without leaving their yard, presumably from dogs passing in the street. Canine Cough vaccination is essential for any social dog. Read more about canine cough here.

Visit this page for all the common causes of coughing in dogs.

Prevention of Distemper, Hepatitis, Parvovirus and Canine Cough

  • The first vaccination with the breeder is a temporary vaccine and is not protective on its own.
  • Get your puppy vaccinated as soon as possible, and follow your vet’s dog vaccination schedule. Take note of when your vet advises you their vaccine will start being protective (Ours protects from 11 weeks of age if given at 10).
  • Until this date, avoid areas where dogs have been who may not be fully vaccinated. This includes all public spaces, grooming salons, pet shops and dog training.
  • Only allow your puppy to meet dogs you are certain are fully vaccinated, and only on uncontaminated private property. Virus can be transmitted by dogs and puppies, but also dirt, hands, shoes, clothing, bowls etc that have been in contact with other dogs.
  • Avoid contact with sick dogs. If you have been in contact with a sick dog, dispose of your clothing, and keep the puppy away from yourself, and the infected environment until the puppy is fully protected. Do not rely on disinfectants.
  • Vaccination is close to 100% effective. As long as you follow your veterinarian’s schedule, you’ll be nearly certain of your dog never experiencing these diseases.

There are a lot more important diseases you can stop your dog from experiencing. Click on the links to learn more about the parasitic diseases such as heartworm and intestinal worms.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

2 Replies to “Explained: Parvo, Distemper, Hepatitis & Kennel Cough”

  1. Hello I am a furmom living here in the Philippines. My senior Labrador was diagnosed with distemper but my concern is he doesn’t show symptoms of distemper like. He still finishes his food drinks a lot of water. He just coughs dry. I wonder what symptoms clearly defines distemper?

    1. Hi Beatriz. The signs of distemper can be found in the article, but if your dog is eating and well other than the cough, it’s a very unlikely diagnosis.

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