If you care about dogs, you fear the word Parvo. And you should.
“Canine parvovirus is the most widely recognized cause of transmissible viral diarrhea in dogs and one of the most common infectious diseases of dogs worldwide.” (Jane E. Sykes, in Canine and Feline Infectious Diseases, 2014)
Parvo is easily spread and it can be fatal.
I knew of it, but I didn’t know very much until the vet told me that my foster dog, Miles, had tested positive for it. Most often seen between six weeks and six months old, canine parvovirus is a highly contagious viral illness that attacks the gastrointestinal tract and immune system. Dog shelters, as well as breeding kennels and boarding facilities that hold a large number of unvaccinated canines in close proximity, are particularly susceptible to the spread of parvovirus. Parvo is spread by direct contact with an infected dog, or indirectly, by fecal-oral contact. Parvovirus is heavily concentrated in the infected animal’s stool. This virus can easily be brought into the dog’s home environment on shoes that have come into contact with infected feces. A healthy dog can contract parvovirus in the normal course of sniffing an infected dog’s stool or anus, or if it steps in the stool of a sick dog and then licks its paws.
Miles, my foster dog, came from a rural shelter in Louisiana, he was a stray. When I picked him up from transport, I could see that he had something wrong with one of his eyes. We got him to the vet immediately. He had a deep corneal abrasion, a descemetocele, and his eye would not recover. The vet decided to keep Miles overnight for surgery. After his enucleation surgery, Miles was in my home, recovering, on crate rest. He was on antibiotics and pain killers, both can upset the stomach and cause nausea, so I was not overly surprised that he was not eating the first day that he was home. The second day that he was not eating, I was concerned enough to take him back to the vet and have him checked out. They gave him an antibiotic shot and we stopped giving the other medications that could cause his inappetence. In the following days, we force fed Miles liquid high calorie food supplement from a syringe and he got fluids at the vet to avoid dehydration. He would not eat. On his last day, he started having severe diarrhea, he was put on IV fluids, he tested positive for Parvo. Miles was not a puppy. He was an adult dog that had not been vaccinated.
Parvo is preventible. A simple vaccine series prevents your dog from getting Parvovirus. Although immunization against Parvovirus is considered highly effective, once Parvovirus is contracted, there is no cure. Miles did not recover from Parvo. Although not a puppy, Miles was underweight and recovering from a major surgery. We did everything that we could, but he did not make it through the 18 hours after his Parvo diagnosis.
The survival rate in dogs with Parvo is around 70 percent when treated in a veterinary hospital. The prognosis is considerably lower for puppies with less developed immune systems. Left untreated, the mortality rate from Parvo exceeds 90 percent. It is common for a puppy who is infected with Parvo to suffer shock and sudden death.
By comparison, the general rate of human fatality from Ebola virus is 50%, which is staggering, but consider that the fatality rate during a severe outbreak of Ebola is 90%. Parvovirus can present similar rates in unvaccinated dog populations, dogs like Miles. Thankfully, unlike Ebola (so far), there is a very effective vaccine for Parvovirus which is readily available and is considered a core part of vaccination protocol. The incidence of canine parvovirus infections has been reduced dramatically by early vaccination in young puppies.
Until it is fully vaccinated, your puppy should only socialize in your home with known, fully-vaccinated dogs. Your puppy’s developing immune system is not ready to be in public yet – hold off on the dog park, please.
What does Parvo look like? The most common form of Parvo is intestinal. It affects nutrient absorption, and an infected animal will quickly become dehydrated. The symptoms of Parvovirus infection include: severe and often bloody diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, anorexia, fever or hypothermia, lethargy, and severe weight loss. If you see any of these symptoms in your dog, reach out to your vet immediately. Acting quickly gives your dog the best chance for a full recovery.
Vaccination is inexpensive, but treatment of the disease for those not vaccinated can be very expensive. Isolation of infected dogs is necessary to minimize the potential spread of infection. The only treatments are supportive care, as there is no cure for this viral infection. So an infected dog will receive fluids and anti-diarrheal medicines.
If your dog has recovered from Parvovirus, it will still have a weakened immune system and will be susceptible to other illnesses. The dog will also continue to be a contagion risk to other dogs for at least two months after the initial recovery and will need to be isolated from other dogs.
Cleaning up after Parvo is very important to prevent its spread. Always pick up feces immediately to reduce transmission. Because of the persistent nature of the virus, once a dog has had parvovirus in a home, it is best not to have puppies or unvaccinated dogs in that home for even several years. The virus can remain viable for months or years in soil and on contaminated surfaces, and it is resistant to sunlight and freezing. Bleach is the most effective disinfectant, but it is important to know where to disinfect: in order to clean up a parvovirus-contaminated area, pick up and safely dispose of all vomit, blood, and feces, then thoroughly wash the area with household bleach and let it stand for at least 10 minutes. Wash all of the objects your dog uses (dishes, crate, toys). Machine washing is best—anything that can go into the dishwasher or washing machine and dryer should. If you can’t clean it, throw it away.
Parvo has serious and long term consequences. As a foster home to 80+ rescue dogs over the last several years, I am heartbroken over Miles’ death, and I am heartbroken over all of the dogs that I cannot foster in the coming years. Proper vaccination could have prevented Mile’s death. Thankfully, the other dogs in my home are all up to date on their vaccinations, and no one else became infected with Parvo. My vet has advised me that I can only welcome fully vaccinated, adult dogs into my home for the duration of 2019. Sadly, too many dogs that are in need of rescue are unvaccinated or stray and have no paperwork or medical history. We will continue to foster the dogs that we can can, and we will never forget Miles.
Miles, I am so sorry that you had such a short life. I’m sorry that you were not vaccinated and kept safe in a loving home as a happy, healthy lap dog. You deserved that. Run free Miles. You were loved.
Please vaccinate you dogs.
Information on Parvovirus is widely available – see: