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Parvovirus cases spike during pandemic: How your hospital can prepare

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BluePearl, which operates 90 specialty and emergency pet hospitals in 21 states, recently announced an “alarming” 70% increase in the number of canine parvovirus cases presenting in their emergency rooms during the pandemic compared to the same time periods in the past five years.

Canine parvovirus infection—or parvo—is a highly contagious and potentially fatal viral illness that affects dogs. The virus manifests itself in two different forms, intestinal (the most common) and cardiac.

Survival rates can approach 90% with proper treatment.

According to BluePearl, the spike appears to be related to the pandemic.

NEWStat reached out to James Barr, DVM, DACVECC, chief medical officer of BluePearl, for comment.

Barr notes that during the pandemic, many people turned to animals for companionship, which led to increased demand for adoptions. Eager to spend quality time with their pups, many people have been wiling away the hours with their new friends. However, Barr explains, “stay-at-home orders prompted a trend in people spending more time outdoors, which could have increased environmental exposure.”

In addition, with wellness care temporarily going by the wayside at most hospitals, many people were forced to postpone vaccinating their new puppies, including for parvo. According to Barr, “Other possible causes for the uptick include disruptions in the timing of or prevention of puppies receiving full vaccine series, resulting in incomplete immunity.” That might include puppies being adopted out of shelters before they were ready to satisfy increased demand. Barr also cites financial hardships such as job loss as a potential factor, “preventing or delaying owners from seeking routine vaccinations.”

“As an emergency and specialty care provider, most of the cases we see [are] in need of critical or advanced care,” Barr says, which would explain why BluePearl hospitals might experience a jump in parvo cases while general practice animal hospitals have not.

The majority of parvo cases are seen in puppies between six weeks and six months of age, which aligns with BluePearl’s numbers: “At this time, our data shows that more than 95% of the infections are in dogs under a year old,” according to Barr.

“Access to vaccinations plays a critical role in preventing this disease,” Barr adds. “Ensuring pet owners are educated on the importance of vaccinations and having them done in a timely manner is paramount to stopping parvo’s spread.”

NEWStat asked Jason W. Stull, VMD, MPVM, PhD, DACVPM, assistant professor of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and chair of AAHA’s Infection Control, Prevention, and Biosecurity Guidelines Task Force, about the BluePearl parvo spike.

Stull says the situation at BluePearl is one that he and his colleagues had feared—that limited veterinary preventive care during the pandemic, coupled with an increase in the time people spent with their dogs outdoors in potentially contagious environments like dog parks, could result in an increase in preventable health conditions like parvo.

Another concern is that many people who adopted pets during the pandemic have never had pets before, or haven’t had them recently, so they aren’t up to speed on the importance of regular veterinary visits, especially when pets are young.

“As veterinary practices begin to reopen, it’s critical we address this gap in preventive care,” Stull says.

Heather Loenser, AAHA’s senior veterinary officer, urges general practices to aggressively educate puppy owners on the necessity of completing the distemper-adenovirus-parvovirus (DAP) series. “It wouldn’t be over the top to ramp up marketing campaigns on the importance of vaccinating pups,” she says, nodding to the increase in adoptions during the quarantine earlier this spring.

The 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines recommend boostering the DAP vaccine every 2 to 4 weeks until the dog is 16 weeks of age. In a high-risk environment, such as where more parvovirus cases are being reported, vaccinating up to 18 to 20 weeks may be beneficial to ensure that the vaccine wasn’t blocked by maternally derived antibodies.

“The AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines Task Force made interim recommendations earlier this spring that emphasized the importance of maintaining a focus on vaccinating against parvovirus and other diseases with high morbidity and zoonotic concern,” Loenser adds.

While the rise in parvo cases at BluePearl isn’t cause for alarm, Stull says it is a wakeup call: “All veterinary practices must remain vigilant with their infection-control practices—an increase in these [kinds of] health conditions can very much affect us all as these pets come into our practices for both sick and wellness appointments.”

He adds, “As we have learned in the past, clinic-wide outbreaks can and do occur—no clinic is immune.”

Photo credit: © iStock/AaronAmat