by: Jonni Good
Canine parvovirus, sometimes known simply as ‘parvo,’ is a serious contagious disease caused by a virus. This illness is spread when dogs come into contact with the feces of infected animals. Dog parks, highway rest stops and popular walking trails in cities are areas where dog feces are often found, and where an unvaccinated dog may pick up the virus. Humans may also unknowingly bring the virus home on the bottom of their shoes or on their car tires, so dogs who never go outside the yard can still be infected with this disease. The virus can live in the soil or other contaminated surfaces for as long as six months.
Most animal shelters and kennels make every effort to avoid the spread of contagious diseases by cleaning the kennels with bleach, but any time that large numbers of animals are kept in close quarters, there is a possibility of infection, so keeping up on your dog’s vaccinations is always a good idea.
Although puppies are more commonly affected by this illness than adult dogs, both my brother and I once owned adult dogs who became seriously ill from canine parvovirus. Both animals had been vaccinated while in our care, but they were acquired after the dogs had reached adulthood, so they may not have received proper vaccination as puppies. Both dogs recovered, but only after several weeks of intensive in-hospital care.
Since this virus attacks the lining of the dog or puppy’s digestive system, the symptoms of the disease are diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy, lack of appetite, and bloody, foul-smelling stools. In addition to severe abdominal discomfort, bloody diarrhea and vomiting, the dog may also have a high fever, and congestive heart failure is possible. Severe symptoms may follow several days of gradually decreasing appetite. Illness usually becomes apparent from three to 12 days after the dog was exposed to the virus.
Obviously, this is a very serious disease, and immediate medical care is required to reduce the risk of death. The veterinarian will make sure to keep the dog from becoming dangerously dehydrated, which can keep the dog or puppy alive long enough for its own immune system to fight the disease. Antibiotics are not effective against this virus, but they are usually given to an infected animal to help prevent the occurrence of secondary bacterial infections, which can cause shock or septicemia. Secondary infections can occur without antibiotics because parvovirus suppresses the dog’s ability to make white blood cells. A blood test showing a low white blood cell count is one of the ways a veterinarian can make a diagnosis of canine parvovirus.
Because the illness causes severe dehydration, the dog will also be put on intravenous fluids, and the animal will probably need to stay under the doctor’s care a week or more. Because the gastrointestinal tract has been affected, the veterinarian may withhold food and water from the dog until the virus has come under control.
Unfortunately, some dogs and puppies who survive a bout of parvovirus can be affected by symptoms six months or more after the original symptoms, particularly if the virus has infected the heart.
To prevent infection, puppies must be vaccinated under the proper schedule, and they should not be taken outside the yard or introduced to any other dogs until at least two weeks after the last puppy shots are administered. Some veterinarians and dog breeders suggest that you avoid dog parks entirely, even after your puppy has been vaccinated, because of the possibility of picking up this or other contagious canine illnesses. If you adopt an older dog from the local shelter, you should take him to your veterinarian for a checkup and ask that he be vaccinated, unless the shelter administered routine vaccinations while the dog was in their care.