Halloween is here — time for the spooks and ghosts and creepiness. And although there are lots of things that can strike fear in the heart of dog lovers, parvovirus should definitely be at the top of this list.
Although typically we don’t see much parvo compared to warmer climates, that doesn’t mean it’s not here. I can recall hearing about wolf pups dying from parvovirus in the past in the Yellowstone area, and local veterinarians do see occasional cases. But lately a slew of dogs diagnosed with parvo have been reported as close as Idaho Falls, and we just took in a young dog to a rescue in Utah that came down with parvo within hours of his arrival. To top that off, I just got an email from a friend in New York — she brought home a puppy on a Sunday and by Wednesday he had died of parvovirus.
Yes, this highly communicable virus can kill, and for whatever reason, it seems unusually prevalent this year. Very scary indeed.
Fast and deadly
Parvo is contagious virus found in both domestic and wild canines. It was first seen in the late 1970s, and is speculated to have mutated from the feline panleukopenia virus found in cats and raccoons. There are several strains of the virus and all are cause severe threats to a dog’s survival.
The virus attacks the gastrointestinal system quickly and intensely. It also can infect the bone marrow and destroy new cells of the immune system, effectively knocking out the body’s defenses. Symptoms include quick onset of severe diarrhea, vomiting, lack of appetite and lethargy. The virus does not always prove fatal, although death is not uncommon, especially if it’s not caught and treated early.
This virus strikes fast — most deaths occur just 48 to 72 hours after the onset of symptoms. It’s not necessarily the virus itself that proves fatal, but the resulting dehydration and complications from the inability to absorb nutrients. Dogs can be diagnosed from symptoms alone, but there is testing that can confirm if parvovirus is the culprit.
Given the life-threatening nature of the virus, treatment includes intense supportive care, including intravenous fluids and anti-nausea medications. This level of care often requires an expensive stay at a vet hospital with round-the-clock care, though the option for some dogs does include intense care by owners at home.
Even with aggressive veterinary treatment the virus can be fatal, especially in younger puppies. Odds of survival depend on the age of the victim, severity of infection, underlying health and how quickly treatment is begun. Without veterinary treatment, most parvo victims will not survive. Those who do survive the first handful of days during treatment tend to recover quickly, show no long-lasting effects and are then likely to be immune to the virus for life.
The virus is horrifyingly contagious and is spread primarily through the fecal waste of infected dogs. Dogs contract parvo by sniffing infected stool, an infected dog’s rear end or anything on which the virus came into contact with — clothing, shoes, dog toys. Dogs who contract parvo are contagious before even showing symptoms, as well as after recovery for a couple of weeks, shedding millions of viral particles in an ounce of feces.
This virus is also very hardy, able to survive in the environment outside a host despite cold temperatures for long periods of time, and is resistant to many cleaning products, making it difficult to disinfect an area where an infected dog has been.
Protect your pup
The good news is, protection is available.
The parvovirus vaccine is effective when administered properly. Most parvo cases occur in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated dogs. The number and timing of vaccines is critical in puppies: They need to be given after the waning of maternal antibodies, which can interfere with the vaccine’s effectiveness. That is why a series of vaccines is given to puppies, designed to offer multiple opportunities to catch that window when the mother’s protection has worn off. Adult dogs should also get the vaccine, but do not need as many boosters as puppies do.
Until a dog is fully protected, taking care where the dog goes is paramount. Because parvo lurks wherever an infected dog has visited, avoid visiting areas where dogs congregate. Partially immunized puppies or dogs should only interact with canines that are fully vaccinated.
This presents a challenge for puppy owners, since socializing is extremely important for puppies. Waiting for the puppy vaccine series to be complete before socializing is not recommended from a behavioral health standpoint, since the prime time to socialize will be over once the vaccine series is complete.
Fortunately, there are many ways and places to socialize your puppy while minimizing the risk for parvo. Because socializing isn’t just about other dogs, but also is about people, places, sounds and surfaces, taking your little one to places not frequented by dogs can offer lots of good socializing opportunities. Other options include carrying them to keep them off the ground where parvo dwells and attending a well-run puppy class.
Like many big problems, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this is true of parvo. To help stop the spread of this scary health threat, talk to your vet to be sure your dog is fully protected.