4 Most Common Infectious Diseases in Dogs

Parvo, distemper, rabies, and kennel cough are the four most common infectious diseases in dogs. An integrative approach to treatment and prevention offers an effective way to protect your dog

We no longer live in an isolated world. Travel is easier than ever before, and interacting with different cultures has created a smaller world. Our dogs are experiencing this as well, and often accompany us on our travels. While it’s exciting to share our adventures with our dogs, it can increase their exposure to infectious diseases. So it’s important to have a working knowledge of some of the most common infectious diseases and how to prevent and treat them.


Infectious diseases occur when an animal has contact with a pathogen that causes or uses a breakdown of the body’s natural defense mechanisms to trigger a disease process. The illness can be mild, with few to no symptoms followed by a speedy recovery; or it can present with symptoms causing severe disease that may ultimately progress to longer recovery, chronic long-term disease, or even death.

Infectious disease can occur through direct or indirect exposure:

  • Direct exposure means the dog must come into direct contact with an infected animal. This can occur due to close physical interaction between the animals, or when a dog comes within close proximity of the infected animal.
  • Indirect exposure does not require direct contact. Exposure can occur after the infected animal has left the immediate area. Because the infective agents remain in the area, a dog can also become infected when he comes into contact with them.

When we think about infectious diseases, the ones that most commonly come to mind are those affecting the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. However, infectious diseases can affect all the body’s organs and functions. Viruses and bacteria are most often associated with infectious disorders, but other infectious agents can also lead to disease — see table on the right.


1. Parvo virus: This highly contagious disease most commonly impacts young dogs, but can affect dogs of any age, especially those that have not developed immunity through natural exposure or vaccinations.

Clinical signs: Parvo causes acute gastrointestinal symptoms characterized by anorexia, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea, which often progresses to bloody diarrhea. This hardy virus can stay virulent in the environment for some time and is resistant to many disinfectants. Parvo virus is shed in the feces of infected dogs, and exposure occurs through the fecal-oral/nasal route.

Treatment: Aimed at supportive care and preventing secondary infections and septic conditions. Prognosis is variable.

2. Distemper: This highly infectious, systemic viral disease has worldwide distribution. It is transmitted by aerosol droplets from the infected animal. Distemper virus is complicated by the large number of species that can become infected, including dogs, foxes, wolves, raccoons, ferrets, minks, skunks, and others.

Clinical signs: Fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, and respiratory symptoms such as nasal discharge and pneumonia. GI signs such as diarrhea, and neurologic signs such as muscle twitching, focal or generalized seizures, can also occur.

Treatment: Often supportive, and prognosis varies based on the severity of symptoms, especially the neurological signs.

3. Rabies: This disease is considered zoonotic, which means it can be transmitted to humans via the bite of a rabid animal. While some countries and territories are considered “rabies free”, this virus is considered to have worldwide distribution. At least 30 known animal species are reservoirs for rabies transmission. Dogs, bats, and wild carnivores are the most common, with dogs being the most important reservoir globally.

Clinical signs: These may vary, but the most reliable clinical signs are acute behavioral changes and unexplained progressive paralysis. Behavioral changes may include sudden anorexia, signs of apprehension or nervousness, irritability, and hyperexcitability. Some animals seek solitude, and some that are normally sweet and docile may suddenly become aggressive.

Treatment: Once symptoms appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal in dogs. Vaccination programs have been successful at preventing the disease. Currently in the US, annual and three-year vaccines are available. While titer testing is available, its acceptance will vary from state to state.

4. Kennel cough: Also known as infectious tracheobronchitis, kennel cough is a highly contagious illness most commonly seen in dogs housed in close quarters, such as boarding facilities, grooming establishments, and doggie daycares. A non-complicated case of kennel cough is usually mild and often self-limiting, but if the immune system is not strong enough to fight off the infection, it may progress to bronchopneumonia or chronic bronchitis. There are many causes of kennel cough, including viruses and bacteria, specifically Bordetella bronchiseptica, canine parainfluenza virus (CPIV), canine adenovirus 2 (CAV-2), and canine influenza.

Clinical signs: The primary symptom of kennel cough is a “goose honk” cough.

Treatment: Often supportive, with cough medications if needed. Anti-inflammatories and antibiotics are only used in cases of severe disease. While kennel cough is not considered one of the core vaccines, proper immunization for at-risk dogs has been shown to lessen or prevent symptoms.


Because there are so many causes of infectious diseases in dogs, there are also numerous treatment options. The primary goal is to support the dog and rid the body of the underlying pathological organisms to allow the immune system to help heal the body.

The cause and the severity of the disease determines whether a conventional or holistic approach is appropriate — however, integrative veterinary medicine allows for the combination of both approaches and generally provides a safer and improved ability to treat the underlying causes of the disease. Some of the integrative options available include fluid therapy, antibiotics, fever-reducing agents, herbals, and helping to eliminate gastrointestinal disturbances to maintain a good appetite — see sidebar to the right.


While it’s not always possible to prevent infectious diseases, the more you increase your dog’s natural defense mechanisms, and provide the highest quality integrative healthcare and wellness options, the more likely a disease may be prevented or, if contracted, be less severe.

  1. Avoiding or reducing exposure can prevent serious illness, and also help prevent the spread of contagious diseases. A little planning can be helpful. When looking for areas to walk or play with your dog, for example, try to avoid highly travelled areas. Dog parks, kennels, and busy walking trails where dogs intermingle and have close contact can contribute to the spread of infectious diseases. Social media and local news outlets can help you find reviews and current information about potential outbreaks.
  2. Vaccinations have become a controversial topic in both human and veterinary medicine. Since their inception, vaccines have helped successfully treat and prevent some of the most serious and deadly diseases in humans and animals; concerns arise when vaccines are improperly used or when a dog is “over-vaccinated”. Every dog is an individual, and healthcare decisions — including the need for vaccines — should be discussed with your veterinarian and individualized based on your dog’s risk for exposure to a disease. Titer testing can be utilized to evaluate the level of antibodies produced from vaccines, and can give a good indication of how much protection the dog has against certain infectious diseases.
  3. Building and maintaining a strong immune system is another key factor in helping defend against infectious diseases. This should begin in puppyhood, if possible, and continue through all life stages. A high quality, species-specific diet using organic all-natural ingredients is a great starting point. Besides nutrition, supplements and herbals can be used to help maintain and improve immune function. Consulting with an integrative veterinarian trained in food therapy and herbal medicine is recommended.

Integrative Treatment Approach to Infectious Diseases

Immediate care

  • Intravenous fluid (IV) fluid therapy
  • Fever-reducing agents
  • Appetite stimulants
  • Gastrointestinal medications to aid with nausea and diarrhea
  • Antibiotics (when appropriate)
  • Anti-inflammatories (when appropriate)
  • Pain relievers
  • Dewormers
  • Specific decontamination and isolation protocols for contagious diseases

Long-term care

  • Proper species-specific diet
  • Immune stimulants to help protect and strengthen the immune system
  • Herbal therapies to help provide long-term options without harsh side effects
  • Consideration of other integrative therapies:
    • Acupuncture
    • Laser therapy
    • Veterinary medical massage therapy
    • Full rehabilitation services if needed
  • A calming and stress-free environment to allow proper healing
  • Detoxification of the dog’s environment

Exposure to infectious diseases is more common today than ever before. Having an understanding of some of the most common diseases our dogs may encounter, and how to treat and prevent them integratively, provides a more balanced approach to wellness.

Veterinarian Dr. Jared Mitchell graduated from Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2004. In 2010, he opened Mitchell Animal Clinic in Mobile, Alabama, and began incorporating holistic modalities into his practice. Dr. Mitchell is completing certification to become a Certified Veterinary Medical Aromatherapist through the VMAA, and plans to achieve certifications in herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic and more.

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