The propensity of canine distemper virus (CDV) to spread to the central nervous system is one of the primary features of distemper. Therefore, we developed a reverse genetics system based on the neurovirulent Snyder Hill (SH) strain of CDV (CDVSH) and show that this virus rapidly circumvents the blood-brain and blood-cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) barriers to spread into the subarachnoid space to induce dramatic viral meningoencephalitis. The use of recombinant CDVSH (rCDV(SH)) expressing enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP) or red fluorescent protein (dTomato) facilitated the sensitive pathological assessment of routes of virus spread in vivo. Infection of ferrets with these viruses led to the full spectrum of clinical signs typically associated with distemper in dogs during a rapid, fatal disease course of approximately 2 weeks. Comparison with the ferret-adapted CDV5804P and the prototypic wild-type CDVR252 showed that hematogenous infection of the choroid plexus is not a significant route of virus spread into the CSF. Instead, viral spread into the subarachnoid space in rCDV(SH)-infected animals was triggered by infection of vascular endothelial cells and the hematogenous spread of virus-infected leukocytes from meningeal blood vessels into the subarachnoid space. This resulted in widespread infection of cells of the pia and arachnoid mater of the leptomeninges over large areas of the cerebral hemispheres. The ability to sensitively assess the in vivo spread of a neurovirulent strain of CDV provides a novel model system to study the mechanisms of virus spread into the CSF and the pathogenesis of acute viral meningitis.