Parvovirus (what every dog owner should know)

Mar 23, 2022 | Dogs

Parvovirus is a highly infectious virus, that even the mention of the name rattles most pet owners.  The last thing any new puppy parent wants to hear is their furry friend has parvovirus. An extremely contagious and potentially deadly disease, it is unfortunately all too common. Here’s everything you need to know about this life-threatening disease, including what it is, the symptoms, and how to prevent it in your pup.

What is canine parvovirus?

Canine parvovirus, otherwise known as parvo, is still considered a new disease. It emerged in Europe in 1976, and by 1978 it had spread worldwide. Parvo is a highly contagious viral infection that primarily attacks tissues with rapidly dividing cells in dogs. It isn’t just found in dogs, it is now known to infect wild animals like wolves, foxes, and raccoons.

It can take one of two forms, cardiovascular or a gastrointestinal form.  In its more common gastrointestinal form, it attacks the building blocks of the intestinal tract, leading to almost a complete loss of nutrient or liquid absorption. It also attacks the bone marrow which means not enough white blood cells are able to be produced to fight off infections, increasing the risk of anemia and sepsis. Less common is the cardiovascular form which attacks the heart muscles. Those who survive are often left with lifelong cardiac problems.

Parvovirus is typically thought of as a puppy illness. Puppies between six weeks to six months old, especially those unvaccinated, are highly susceptible to contracting the virus. Puppies under six weeks of age are protected from the virus as they retain some of the antibodies from their mother’s milk. However, older dogs are able to contract the disease.

Black and white dog with her newborn puppiesPuppies under six week receive protection from the virus from the antibodies in their mother’s milk

How do dogs contract parvovirus?

Parvovirus is transmitted either by direct contact with an infected dog, or indirectly, and most commonly, through faecal matter from an infected dog contaminating the environment. As it is passed through faeces it makes it hard to prevent your pet from coming in contact with it. This is especially so when going on walks where they are able to sniff other dog’s matter, accidentally walk through it, or even from walking on ground that was previously contaminated.

Extremely resilient, parvovirus can survive in the environment for up to nine years, including the ground and soil. It can also withstand most household cleaning products (bleach is an exception), heat, cold and humidity, all of which makes the spread of the virus is hard to control. This means it’s easily transferred to your pooches paws and to your shoes, which can then be tracked into new locations and even transferred to bedding, clothing, food bowls, and carpets.

Puppies in park sniffing a leafYoung dogs are extremely susceptible to parvovirus, which is highly contagious

What are the symptoms?

If your dog contracts parvovirus, signs will start appearing within three to seven days after they were exposed. Symptoms usually begin with:

  • High fever
  • Lethargy or weakness
  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms soon become more severe to include:

  • Severe vomiting
  • Blood in faeces and/or diarrhoea
  • Severe dehydration
  • Shock 

If not treated, symptoms become fatal within 48-72 hours after they first present.

How is parvovirus treated?

If your dog is showing any of the above signs or symptoms, or if you even suspect your dog has parvovirus, visit your vet immediately. Diagnosing parvovirus can be difficult as it can mimic other diseases. However, your vet can run a quick test to determine whether your pup has contracted the virus. There is no cure for parvovirus. Instead, intensive treatment is required to assist the body in fighting off the disease.

This treatment will vary depending on the severity of the symptoms. However, in nearly all cases, it will require intensive hospital care for up to a week. This care involves blood tests to assess the white blood cell count, red blood cell count, and electrolyte status. They are given specially targeted IV fluids therapy, glucose and electrolyte supplementation, multiple anti-nausea medications and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections in a weakened immune system.

Many patients often require feeding tube placement and a specialised feeding plan. Additional medications may be required to treat other concurrent faecal parasite infections as well. Some pets may even require red blood cell or plasma transfusions. Care in an isolation ward is provided to avoid spreading the virus to other animals which also requires the veterinary and nursing teams to wear full personal protective equipment.

If left untreated, mortality rates are high. Despite intensive nursing care, 1 in 10 patients will pass away. We cannot stress enough – this is a deadly disease requiring commitment and extensive hospitalisation time. This level of veterinary care is costly due to the amount of medications, intensive care, and isolation ward use. The cost varies for treatment depending on the severity of the patient, white blood cell count, and time in hospital. Due to the seriousness of the disease and low survival rate, as well as costs, many owners chose not to treat their pets and instead elect for euthanasia.

Parvovirus is also not covered by some pet insurance companies as it is seen to be a preventable disease. If treatment is received quickly, particularly before the onset of gastrointestinal signs, and if the pet has a high white blood cell count, the dog has more of a chance of recovery and may possibly even retain immunity from the strain that infected them.
Vet wearing PPE while handling puppy with parvovirusAnimal Emergency Service Vet wearing personal protective equipment while handling a puppy with parvovirus

How to prevent your dog from contracting parvovirus

Prevention is always better than a cure. The safest and most effective, not to mention inexpensive, prevention method against parvovirus are vaccinations. As soon as puppies are old enough they should be vaccinated, have all three vaccinations, and kept isolated from other dogs until 16 weeks of age, including being kept away from other dogs until two weeks after their final vaccination. It is important to ensure even after their puppy shots, booster vaccinations are kept up to date in order to protect them from this deadly illnesses.

You can further prevent your pet from contracting parvovirus by reducing exposure. This includes:

  • Do not allow your new puppy to leave your house until all vaccinations have been given
  • If you are in a rental property with an unknown yard status, use fake grass or buy a patch of grass for training purposes
  • Avoid high-risk areas, such as dog parks and boarding kennels until they have had all their vaccinations
  • Keep your puppy or dog away from dogs who haven’t been vaccinated
  • Always collect and dispose of your dog’s waste
  • Decontaminate any surfaces, such as bedding, toys, and bowls, that may have been exposed to the virus. Bleach is the most effective in killing the virus but always speak to your vet about the best cleaning methods.
  • You won’t be able to decontaminate your lawn and garden, but rain and watering will dilute the concentration of the virus over time
  • If your dog has been exposed to the virus, isolate them until your vet tells you otherwise

If you believe your pet has parvovirus, contact your closest Animal Emergency Service hospital or your local vet immediately.

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