Canine parvovirus is a highly contagious disease that threatens the health of unvaccinated puppies and immunocompromised or unvaccinated adult dogs alike. Once infected, dogs are at risk of serious illness, and their owners may pay for expensive veterinary treatments that do not guarantee survival.

Although the consequences of canine parvovirus infection can be dire, pet owners can greatly decrease their dog’s risk of disease with vaccinations, effective prevention methods, and the help of a trusted veterinarian.

What is canine parvovirus?
Canine parvovirus is a virus that invades the gastrointestinal tracts of puppies and dogs and produces signs of illness including:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Severe, explosive, and often bloody diarrhea

The disease is spread when dogs come into contact with or ingest contaminated feces or vomit, and its onset is swift and severe. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), most deaths from parvovirus take place within 48-72 hours of the appearance of clinical signs.

Parvovirus can affect all ages and breeds of dogs, but it is more threatening to puppies younger than four months and unvaccinated dogs, the AVMA said.

Certain breeds, including Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, Labrador retrievers, American Staffordshire terriers, and German shepherds, are more prone to contracting canine parvovirus for reasons not fully known, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

When to visit a veterinarian
Pet owners should immediately bring dogs to a veterinarian if they display symptoms consistent with parvovirus, said Kate Hurley, DVM, MPVM, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the UC Davis Center for Companion Animal Health.

“There’s a simple test the veterinarian can do that will help decide right away whether a dog has parvo or not, and that can get the dog started on treatment and also make sure that proper precautions are taken to prevent the spread to any other dogs,” Hurley said.

Even if a dog shows symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting but tests rule out parvovirus, Hurley said the dog still could have a serious health problem that requires attention, such as a severe hookworm infection or a foreign body in the gastrointestinal tract.

How is canine parvovirus treated?
“It’s a virus, so there’s no specific treatment for it,” Hurley said. “All we can do is offer supportive care, and that can be very expensive, and that’s not always successful. Even with the best of care, we might lose 5-10 percent of infected dogs.”

According to the ASPCA, treatments include preventing dehydration, controlling vomiting and diarrhea, and preventing secondary infections. The ordeal can be costly for owners, as it may require dogs to stay in the hospital for five to seven days.

Instead of waiting for the worst to happen, Hurley recommends dog owners protect puppies and unvaccinated older dogs with the parvovirus vaccine.

“The good news is that the vaccine immunizes dogs superbly against parvo, even against the new strains that are out there,” Hurley said. “Once a puppy is five months of age or older and has had that final vaccine, they’re protected and there’s no real need to worry.”

American Animal Hospital Association guidelines recommend that puppies receive a series of vaccinations starting between six and eight weeks of age and ending between 14 and 16 weeks of age. The dog should receive a booster vaccination a year from the initial series, followed by revaccinations every three years.

Other tips for preventing the spread of parvovirus
Until your dog is current with his vaccinations, there are a number of additional steps you can take to keep him and other dogs safe from parvovirus: 

  • Keep puppies five months of age and younger away from pet superstore floors, dog park grounds, and anywhere else sick or recently adopted dogs might roam.
  • Carry puppies across animal hospital floors, and don’t let them sniff dark corners.
  • If you recently adopted a dog from an animal shelter or other source where she may have been exposed, keep her away from puppies for a couple of weeks.
  • If your dog is sick, avoid taking him to public areas.
  • Promptly dispose of your dog’s waste in a safe manner.
  • The ASPCA recommends cleaning potentially contaminated surfaces and objects with household bleach in a 1:32 dilution. Let the bleach sit for 10 minutes before rinsing.
  • Wash your hands and change your clothes soon after handling a dog that is sick or might have been exposed.
  • Do not take your puppy or unvaccinated dog to places where you are unsure of the vaccination history of other dogs.


Photo credit: iStock



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