You may have heard about ‘parvo’ or parvovirus in dogs, particularly if you’ve owned a puppy. Parvo is a highly contagious, resilient virus that can take hold quickly within a dog of any age and cause severe illness or even death. In fact, parvo is one of the more deadly viruses in dogs. To make things even more complicated, it’s also fairly prevalent in most parts of the country. In this post we’ll give you the facts about canine parvovirus and teach you how to best defend your canine companion from this nasty bug.
What is Parvo?
Parvovirus is an acute disease in dogs that is highly contagious. ‘Acute’ means that the symptoms have a rapid onset, usually between 3-10 days of infection. The disease is thought to be a mutation of the feline distemper virus and was first described clinically in dogs in 1978. At that time, an parvo epidemic was sweeping the country and large numbers of dogs became ill. Fortunately, this epidemic led to the development of a vaccine that we’ll discuss in more detail shortly. Parvo manifests itself in two main forms. The first and most common is the intestinal form which can affect puppies and un-vaccinated adult dogs. The second form is cardiac, which mainly affects puppies under the age of 20 weeks (5 months). Parvovirus attacks cells that grow rapidly within a dog’s body, making the cells of the gastrointestinal tract an easy target. Because puppies are growing rapidly, their bodies are particularly vulnerable. If untreated, parvo will likely lead to death in un-vaccinated or vulnerable dogs. Infected pups often die of dehydration associated with the symptoms of the illness or contract a secondary infection because parvo weakens their immune system. The scary truth is that parvo kills between approximately 16-35% of dogs that catch it. We really, really don’t like that stat.
How can my Dog Catch Parvo?
This is where the ugliness gets even uglier. Parvo is a hardy virus. It can live up to 1 or even 2 years in the environment, even through radical changes in temperature. So a dog can come in contact with the virus without it’s pet parent being aware. Parvo is considered to most commonly be transmitted through the oral-fecal route. This means your dog comes in contact with another dog’s poop. The virus sheds itself from an infected dog’s body through his feces in a very high concentration. So even your dog smelling an infected dog’s feces can be sufficient for transmission of the virus. It can also be contracted through secondary means of exposure. For instance, if you step in an infected dog’s feces and then walk on the floor in your home, the virus will then contaminate the surfaces you walked on. It can live on hard surfaces, in carpets and grass, in saliva and blood, and pretty much anywhere else you can imagine. The crucial point here is that parvo is really, really good at surviving anywhere it’s tracked, so protecting your pet through strictly trying to limit his or her contact with contaminated surfaces or objects is extremely difficult. Areas that are highly trafficked by dogs, such as dog parks, kennels, and even city streets are more likely to be contaminated.
What are the Symptoms and How is it Diagnosed?
Due to widespread vaccination, the prevalence of the cardiac form of parvo has been greatly reduced. The cardiac form of the virus attacks a dog’s heart muscle and can result in cardiac arrest and sudden death. Some dogs infected with this form of the virus will exhibit a fever and difficulty breathing. Others may not show symptoms at all and may pass away suddenly. You can take comfort in knowing that this form of parvo is very rare these days.
Dogs who become infected with the intestinal form of parvo will often exhibit signs of depression such as a loss of appetite, lethargy, and a lack of interest in playing. They may suffer body temperature changes resulting in either fever or hypothermia. Due to its attack on the pup’s gastrointestinal system, parvo inhibits a dog’s ability to absorb nutrients from food and water. This leads to pronounced vomiting and diarrhea which causes dehydration. The diarrhea will often contain mucous or blood. The more severe the vomiting and diarrhea the more quickly a dog will dehydrate and it is often this dehydration that causes death in infected pups. Signs of dehydration include a reddening and/or drying of the wet tissue around the mouth and eyes. Sometimes dogs will the intestinal form of parvovirus will also experience abdominal pain. The onset of these symptoms is quick and can lead to permanent damage or death in a matter of days.
If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, you should seek veterinary attention immediately. Vets will often conduct a number of tests to diagnose the virus ranging from blood samples to analysis of fecal matter and vomit.
How is Parvo Treated?
When a dog contracts parvovirus it’s important to act as quickly as possible. Dogs who are vomiting and having diarrhea should not be given any more food or water and should be taken to their veterinarian immediately. Withholding food and water is not cruel in this case but rather crucial for the short term, as it’s imperative to try and mitigate the dehydration that accompanies parvo. The sooner a pup’s body is supported in resisting the virus, the better his or her changes for survival. There is no medication that kills the virus itself. Instead, veterinarians focus on replacing the fluids and nutrients that the dog is losing through the vomiting and diarrhea. Vets will also give intravenous (IV) fluids to help combat the dehydration. In some cases, medications will be administered to combat nausea and reduce vomiting. The goal of veterinary treatment is to support the dog’s body while the virus runs its course. Pet parents should not attempt to treat parvo at home because IV fluids and nutrition are absolutely essential. Treatment usually lasts between 5-7 days and often requires overnight stays at a veterinary hospital.
OK, I’m Freaked Out. How can I Prevent my Dog from Catching Parvo?
Yup. We hate parvo. It’s scary and dangerous and much more common than we would like. That’s the bad news. But take comfort. There is really good news. A dog’s chances of catching parvo are dramatically reduced through a proper vaccination schedule. And vaccinated dogs who catch the disease are much, much more likely to survive the experience. So in this case a bit of preventative care could undoubtedly save your beloved pet’s life and also greatly decrease your concerns about parvovirus.
Puppies are supplied with some immune resistance to parvo through their mother’s milk, but these effects often wear off before the pup has had a chance to build up the proper defenses. Thus, puppies are given a vaccination at 8 weeks old and then receive a booster at 12 weeks, and 16 weeks of age. They receive their first ‘adult parvo vaccination’ 1 year later (at age 1 year, 4 months) and then every 3 years after that. Following this schedule is the best possible thing you can do to protect your pet. Additionally, if you adopt an older puppy or adult dog and you’re not sure whether they’ve already been vaccinated you should schedule an appointment to have it done. It’s definitely much better to be safe than sorry.
Parvovirus is very resistant to disinfectants, but a solution of 1 part bleach to 30 parts water has been shown as effective in killing it. If you suspect a surface or object has been contaminated, treat with with the bleach solution and let it sit for at least 20 minutes before rinsing. For textured surfaces such as carpet and lawns it can be very difficult to eradicate the virus. If you are certain that these surfaces have been contaminated and you have an uninfected dog, you may need to consider measures as drastic as resurfacing in order to protect your furry friend. Also keep in mind that a dog who survives parvo can become infected again.
If you have multiple dogs and one of them becomes infected with parvo, it’s imperative that you be very cautious to avoid infection in the other dogs. An infected dog can shed the virus for a prolonged period of time after he no longer shows symptoms. We advise that you speak with your vet about your options should one of your pets become infected and others be susceptible.
If you’ve got a puppy who is undergoing or has not yet started their vaccination series, it is very important to limit their exposure to contaminated areas or infected dogs until they’ve developed the proper immune resistance. It will take the whole series of vaccinations and boosters for your puppy to be fully protected, so be cautious until a few days after the final booster is given. This may mean limiting your dog’s exposure to other puppies and adult dogs. We know it’s hard to think of keeping a playful puppy away from other canine friends, but remember that infected adult dogs may not show symptoms of parvo if they’ve built up the proper immunity protections. That won’t stop them from spreading the virus to your pup though. Socialization with other dogs is important to your puppy’s mental and emotional development so seek out play groups and training programs that require all puppies be undergoing their vaccination series. And if another dog goes number 2 during a session, clear the area immediately just to be safe.
Parvo is a scary illness and many pet parents have experienced the heartbreak of losing a puppy or even an adult dog to the disease. But with the proper preventative measures and through adhering to a vaccination schedule you can enjoy the peace of mind that your beloved pup is being given his or her best defenses against to virus.