What Every Dog Owner Should Know About Parvovirus

Parvovirus, or parvo, is a scary, potentially fatal disease.  If you have a puppy, or are thinking of getting a puppy, here’s what you need to know.

Parvovirus is a contagious disease that ravages an animal’s intestinal tract and depletes the body of its white blood cells. One strain also attacks the heart.

Canine parvo, first discovered in 1967, affects mostly puppies and unvaccinated adolescent dogs. With immediate diagnosis and proper treatment, dogs have a 75%-80% survival rate.

Transmission

Parvovirus transmits through exposure to an infected dog’s feces. It can be direct or indirect contact. The virus sticks to, lives on, and spreads through soil, clothing, carpet, toys, and anything else with which it comes in contact. It can survive indoors for a month and outside for several months. The virus hibernates in cool temperatures and reactivates when temperatures rise.

Symptoms

There are several symptoms associated with parvo. If you see them in your pup, contact a veterinarian for immediate help.

  • Severe vomiting
  • Diarrhea, often bloody
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy

While these symptoms don’t always mean parvo, they’re cause for concern either way. If they’re due to the parvovirus, immediate diagnosis and treatment is critical.

Diagnosis

Veterinarians use a couple of tests to verify or rule out parvovirus. Fecal tests are the first step. Some happen in-house and others go out to a lab. Depending on the results of the fecal, a white blood cell count may be next. Following a confirmed diagnosis, the goal is to place the dog on a treatment regimen as soon as possible.

Treatment

No medicine or procedure can rid the body of parvovirus. Treatment is intense and centers around keeping puppies alive and minimizing damage while the immune system works to fight the virus. It usually involves a five to seven day admittance.

One important part of treatment is providing lots of fluids. The vomiting and diarrhea dehydrate dogs and cause electrolyte imbalances and low blood sugar. Fluids, potassium, and dextrose battle this part of the infection.

In addition to fluids, treatment usually includes antibiotics to ward off bacteria, anti-nausea medicine to control vomiting, and antacids to heal and reduce severity of ulcers that occur in the stomach, intestine, and esophagus.

The above are the basic necessary treatment options. Additional options can increase the chance of survival. If it makes sense for a particular case, veterinarians will discuss them with the patient’s owners. These include anti-flu medicines, plasma transfusions, hormone therapy to encourage marrow to produce white blood cells, and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Throughout treatment, close monitoring is necessary. This includes fecal exams, urinalysis, complete blood counts, and blood protein and white blood cell measurements.

Because of the high mortality rate and level of environmental contamination, we don’t recommend home treatment. Home treatment is also strenuous and time consuming. However, if finances leave owners feeling they have no other option, they should discuss it with their veterinarian.

Aftercare

When a pup comes through the worst and is ready to go home, there are a few considerations. One is how sensitive their digestive system is. Owners are sent home with recommendation and instructions for home cooked or therapeutic foods that are easy on the system.

It’s also important to keep the patient away from puppies with incomplete vaccination routines and from cats, who can also get parvo.

Prevention

The best way to prevent parvovirus is through complete vaccinations and keeping away from possibly contaminated areas.

When puppies are born, their mothers pass them antibodies through milk. These antibodies protect puppies against parvo but also prevent the parvo vaccine from taking effect. Over the first several weeks, levels of antibodies drop, leaving puppies more susceptible to the virus, but allowing vaccines to be more effective.

This is why the vaccination process involves a series of injections until puppies are 16-20 weeks old. After that, parvovirus vaccines are included in the distemper combination vaccine.

Until puppies have complete vaccination, dog parks and playdates with other puppies are out of the question. Beyond picking up feces, there’s no way to disinfect outside areas. Inside, typical disinfectants will not wipe out the virus. However, they will reduce the number of particles present. A 1:30 ratio of bleach will kill the virus when in contact for 10 minutes.

Parvo is a hardy virus that does serious damage. Prevention with a thorough vaccine regimen and protection from exposure are key. Beyond that, watch for symptoms and get immediate medical help if they arise.