What is Parvo?

Among dog people the word “parvo ” is so scary it’s a bit like the boogeyman parvo is a highly contagious disease that impacts primarily puppies, though can also be spread to dogs. Parvo is so frightening because it is extremely easy to spread and can often be fatal. Unfortunately, a side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that parvo cases have been on the rise in communities across the country

What is Parvo?

Dr. Robertson of  NorthStar VETS explained that “Canine Parvovirus (CPV-2, or “parvo”) is a highly contagious virus specific to dogs. The virus is shed in extremely high numbers in the feces of infected animals. As a result, it can be found in most environments.” Because Parvo is spread through direct contact between infected dogs or indirect contact with objects that have been previously touched by a contaminated dog it is very easy for the disease to pass between dogs. Parvo is a gastrointestinal disease, and the parvo virus is present in the feces of infected dogs and puppies 4-5 days after exposure generally even before any clinical signs of illness develop. Puppies with parvo continue to be infectious while they are sick, and for an additional ten days after they have fully recovered. Meaning that even a dog who appears healthy can spread Parvo to other dogs and puppies. 

Risk of Parvo in Dogs

Young puppies are generally most at risk of contracting Parvo. Dr. Robertson explains that “Parvovirus is disease primarily seen in puppies less than 20 weeks of age; however, any unvaccinated, under-vaccinated, or immuno-compromised dog can be at risk.” Puppies are particularly susceptible to Parvo both because their immune systems are still developing, and because for young puppies it’s not possible for them to be fully vaccinated. Although dogs of any breed or breed mix can contract Parvo, The Merck Veterinary Manual also notes that Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, American Pit Bull Terriers, English Springer Spaniels and German Shepherds are particularly susceptible to the disease. 

When you bring a new puppy home you likely will be advised by your vet, breeder or shelter that you shouldn’t bring your puppy out into public places where other dogs have been until they are fully vaccinated. The risk of contracting parvo is a primary reason for this warning. “The earliest they can complete their vaccine series is 16 weeks of age, putting these young puppies at greatest risk” cautioned Dr. Robertson. In addition to not being fully vaccinated, Dr. Spencer, Medical Director at Denver-based Goodheart Animal Health Center, notes that “puppies also tend to put everything in their mouths, and their immune systems aren’t mature yet so they are more likely to get the disease.”

COVID-19 Impact on Parvo

Although Parvo has medically nothing to do with COVID-19 cases of parvo have been on the rise in the United States since the start of the pandemic. “There was a surge in adoption and purchase of puppies (affectionately referred to as “COVID puppies’ ‘). The pandemic also affected the caseload and appointment availability at veterinary clinics nationwide, making it challenging for new owners to receive timely appointments” explained Dr. Robertson. Unfortunately, it was this increase in puppies being adopted and a difficulty getting vet appointments for scheduling vaccinations which is believed to have played a significant role on the increase in parvo cases seen in 2020. Dr. Spencer advised also that the lockdowns which kept people away from each other also actually may have put dogs and puppies more at risk. With so many new pet adoptions during COVID, we had a lot of “under-vaccinated” animals out there. In addition, pet owners were also out walking their dogs much more than ever since there was not much else to do during the pandemic.” 

Parvo Prevention

Preventing Parvo is key to keeping your puppy or dog safe. Although puppies are most at risk of contracting parvo, “Any unvaccinated dog is susceptible” reminds Dr. Spencer. The primary way you can protect your dog from developing Parvo is to make sure they are fully vaccinated as puppies, and that you keep your dog’s vaccinations current through adulthood. “The parvo vaccine is extremely effective, but your pup must have the full series to be protected” advises Dr. Spencer.

If you bring a new puppy home, make sure to get a copy of the vaccination records from your breeder or rescue/shelter. Know that even though your puppy has had some vaccines they will likely need more in just a couple of weeks and keeping your puppy safe requires close attention to that vaccination schedule. “Puppies can start receiving their vaccines at 6 weeks of age. The vaccine schedule should be continued every 2-4 weeks until the puppy reaches at least 16 weeks of age, per the AAHA vaccination guidelines. Adult dogs should also be vaccinated at 1 year of age and then every 1 or 3 years, depending upon the vaccine used by your veterinarian” explained Dr. Robertson. 

Parvo Symptoms

Dogs and puppies who contract Parvo become very sick. “The virus works by attacking rapidly dividing cells. The intestinal lining and bone marrow are most commonly affected. Dogs will often develop severe and often bloody diarrhea, and vomiting. The resulting severe dehydration quickly becomes life-threatening. Damage to the bone marrow causes very low white blood cell levels, which increases risk for secondary infection and sepsis.” explained Dr. Robertson. First signs to watch for include lethargic behavior, refusal to eat, vomiting, and diarrhea. Seek veterinary care immediately if your puppy becomes sick, or if you believe your dog or puppy may have been exposed to Parvo. 

Parvo Treatment

Immediate treatment of Parvo is essential if a dog or puppy is going to survive. “There is no cure for parvovirus. Treatment includes aggressive supportive care while the virus runs its course. This includes intravenous fluids to help treat and prevent dehydration, antibiotics to prevent sepsis, anti-vomiting medications to reduce continued fluid losses” advises Dr. Robertson. Dogs and puppies who contract Parvo are extremely sick, and generally have to be hospitalized for a period of time. “Pups can survive if treated appropriately, but this could mean a week in the hospital on IV fluids, and even then, some won’t make it” cautious Dr. Spencer. The treatment for Parvo is extensive and can be expensive with prolonged hospitalizations, but Dr. Robertson notes that in his experience the “recovery rate in dogs receiving early and appropriate treatment is approximately 80%.”

Socialization vs Safety

Unfortunately, one of the challenges of Parvo is both how easily it is spread, and how long areas can remain infectious. “Parvo can live in the environment for a long time (a year). So, say a dog had parvo and was walking down your street 6 months ago. Today, your pup walked in that same area and licked the ground or their feet when they get home. Voila! – parvo exposure” cautioned Dr. Spencer. 

When you get a new puppy, you want to take them places for training, socialization and to have fun together but especially until your puppy is fully vaccinated it’s important to be cautious. Dr. Spencer advises “remember to balance socializing your pet at a young age with keeping them healthy. They still need to learn how to walk on a leash and listen to scary noises in the neighborhood when they aren’t fully vaccinated.” To accomplish this, Dr. Spencer encourages people with new puppies to “find a less-traveled area to do that – please don’t take them to the park!” The risk of Parvo is significant so it can be a tricky balance to keep puppies that aren’t fully vaccinated safe while also receiving adequate socialization to new noises, sights, and sounds. If you are taking your new puppy to a puppy kindergarten style training class, be sure to ask the trainer in advance what kind of cleaning/disinfecting protocols are in place for the facility before and after each class, and discuss that with your vet before attending.

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