Greg Closter, DVM, Alaska SPCA Veterinarian
What you need to know about Parvovirus?
Parvovirus (often referred to as “parvo”) is a viral infection that affects dogs by attacking certain cells lining the small intestine. This causes a cascade of issues including the depletion of certain white blood cells that help fight infection, profuse, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, lack of appetite, lethargy, dehydration, and weight loss. Left unchecked, it can eventually lead to shock and death.
Fortunately, there is a vaccine that can help prevent your dog from getting parvo – but it is important that multiple vaccines are given to puppies at certain stages of their development, and that the vaccine is updated in a timely manner throughout your dog’s lifetime.
How does a dog get parvo?
Parvovirus is primarily transmitted by way of oral/fecal contact, meaning a dog can get it if he or she ingests fecal matter that is infected with the virus. Although this can happen if a dog eats feces, it can also happen if a dog steps in or rolls in soil where an infected dog had defecated, and then they lick their paws or fur that touched the infected soil – so you may likely not even know it happened.
A dog that has parvo will begin shedding the virus in it’s feces 4-5 days after it’s initial exposure to the virus, but the dog will not show clinical illness until 6-10 days after exposure, so you may not even be aware that your dog has come into contact with a parvo dog. Also, parvo is an extremely resistant virus and can remain active in the soil for 7 months or longer after it has been shed.
Statistically, parvo overwhelmingly affects puppies and unvaccinated adults. Unfortunately, parvo is widespread in the Anchorage and Mat-Su regions of Alaska.
How can I protect my dog against parvo?
In order to maximize protecting your dog from parvo, you need to vaccinate your dog appropriately and be careful about where you take your dog before they are fully vaccinated.
Since parvo primarily affects puppies, we vaccinate them for parvo multiple times as they are growing. The standard is to give the vaccine at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age. Up until they are 16 weeks old, puppies maintain maternal antibodies that can partially minimize the effectiveness of a vaccine, so it is important that the last puppy parvo shot come at 16 weeks of age or later.
And it is equally important that you not expose a puppy to areas or unknown dogs that could potentially have the parvovirus until the puppy has completed the full vaccine protocol. This means you should not take the puppy to dog parks, businesses, or puppy classes until fully vaccinated. Since socialization is important for puppy development, you can let your puppy interact with friend’s or relative’s dogs that you know are fully vaccinated, in an environment that you know is safe.
Once a puppy has been fully vaccinated, the dog will need a booster vaccine in 1 year. After the initial 1-year shot, then we vaccinate every three years for the rest of their lives.
What do I do if I think my dog might have parvo?
If you are seeing some or all of the clinical signs noted above, especially if the dog is a puppy or unvaccinated, you should take your dog to a veterinarian to be examined. Be sure to let the vet clinic know that you think you dog might have parvo so they can take the proper precautions to isolate your dog from other animals in the clinic. There is a simple on-site test that most veterinary clinics have available to test for parvovirus.
Once a dog starts showing symptoms of parvovirus, they can get very sick very quickly, so it is important that they get aggressive treatment as soon as possible. This treatment typically includes intravenous fluids, injectable antibiotics, medications to help control fever, and others. These dogs often require round-the-clock monitoring as well. As such, treatment can be quite expensive, so an ounce of prevention by way of vaccinating and limiting environmental exposure is a sound investment in your puppy’s development.
Since the Alaska SPCA does not have a room to isolate parvo patients and we do not have the staff necessary to adequately monitor and give treatments to parvo patients, we ask that you take you pet to an emergency clinic or your regular vet if you suspect parvovirus. While not ideal, if your pet is diagnosed with parvo and you simply cannot afford hospitalized care, talk to the vet about at-home treatments you can try, such as subcutaneous fluids and oral antibiotics, that could potentially get your pet through the crisis.