Parvo: A Deadly Disease

(Photo by Margo Brodowicz)

A Note From Dr. John:

There’s no sugarcoating it– parvo kills!  So what is this deadly disease?  What causes it and how can it be prevented?  Here, we’ll review everything you need to know about parvo, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What exactly is parvo?
The parvovirus is thought to have mutated from a feline gastrointestinal virus called panleukopenia.  Parvovirus specifically targets rapidly replicating cells in the body, so it typically takes up shop in dogs’ intestinal tracts and bone marrow.  If left untreated, parvoviral infections can certainly be fatal– usually from severe dehydration, but other times, from overwhelming secondary bacterial infections.

How can my dog get parvo?
Parvovirus is highly contagious.  It is spread in the feces of dogs.  If your dog so much as sniffs around the area where a parvo-positive dog has defecated, he can contract the disease. 

How can I protect my pet against parvo?
Thankfully, the vaccination against the parvovirus is highly effective at preventing infection.  Puppy vaccinations start at six to eight weeks of age are are given every three weeks until your dog reaches sixteen weeks of age.  Your dog will need to be vaccinated every year thereafter.  Do not take the risk– have your pet vaccinated appropriately.  Vaccines can save your dog’s life!

How do I know if my dog has parvo?
The most common clinical signs of parvo are vomiting, diarrhea (including bloody diarrhea), loss of appetite, and lethargy.  The virus replicates in the cells of the intestinal tract and kills the lining of the intestines.  This causes the diarrhea that is so frequently observed in infected pets.  With a diseased intestinal tract, dogs cannot digest food or absorb nutrients.  The amount of fluid lost rapidly leads to dehydration.  If dehydration is severe enough, the infection can be fatal.

How is parvo treated?
Parvovirus, like many viruses, is self-limiting.  This means that it will run its course and be cleared naturally by the body– assuming the body can maintain hydration and fight off secondary bacterial infections.  The mainstay of treatment is IV fluids and injectable antibiotics.  Treatment can last up to 5-7 days, depending on the severity of the case.  Obviously, this can be very hard on your dog… and very expensive!  Prevention is a much cheaper option.  Vaccination will not only save your dog the stress of infection, it will save you the worry of wondering what will happen.

What else do I need to know?

  • Parvovirus can stay viable in the environment for months.  This means that contaminated areas remain dangerous for a long period of time unless cleaned appropriately. 
  • The only way to kill parvovirus once it is in the environment is with bleach (diluted one part bleach in nine parts water).  While this is generally feasible in a home environment, it is not feasible outdoors. 
  • If you have had a dog with parvo in your home, you should not get another puppy or allow unvaccinated dogs in the house for at least 6 months. 
  • Once a dog has had parvovirus and survives, that pet should have exceptionally high immunity.
  • The parvo vaccination cannot be give to pregnant females.  The vaccine is a modified live vaccine and therefore, can cause illness in newborns.  Make sure to inform your veterinarian if you think that your pet may be pregnant.

Our information is not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian.  
Do not use this information for diagnostic purposes. Always take your pet to your veterinarian to obtain a diagnosis and course of treatment.