by Carolyn Fletcher, DVM
I treated very few cases of parvovirus as a veterinarian practicing in the Northeastern United States. Sadly, the number of cases that greeted me on my arrival in New Mexico made me realize that the disease is commonplace here. The fact that the condition is always serious, and fatal if untreated, means we lose many beautiful puppies to a disease that is almost entirely preventable.
Parvovirus can affect dogs of any age but is most common in puppies between birth and six months of age. The disease is passed to healthy dogs through the feces of infected ones. The virus is a hardy little organism, surviving well in soil or even carried around on shoes, making contact and transmission a simple thing.
Dogs who contract parvo sicken and deteriorate rapidly. They become depressed and lethargic, then progress to vomiting and diarrhea. The diarrhea is often bloody and carries a distinctive strong odor. In a dry climate like New Mexico, dehydration often follows quickly. Without medical attention, most dogs die within two to three days. However, some dogs do not show the gastrointestinal symptoms immediately and simply become lethargic and weak. If your dog is not vaccinated against parvo or you are unsure of his vaccination status, you should always treat sudden onset of lethargy seriously and have your dog tested for parvo.
When a dog is diagnosed with parvovirus, the owner faces significant treatment expenses. Affected animals are given intravenous fluids as well as antibiotics to treat the disease and other medications to control vomiting and diarrhea. Because the disease is highly contagious, parvo-positive animals must be kept in an isolated area of the hospital. For each day of the dog’s hospital stay, one doctor and one technician are assigned to care for her. Because of the risk of spreading the disease, that doctor and technician should not handle any other puppies or unvaccinated dogs. Special protective garments must be worn while working in the isolation unit. The specially designated areas where parvo-positive animals are housed must be kept meticulously clean to prevent any contamination from being passed to other areas of the hospital on hands, shoes, or clothing. This level of infection control is extremely labor intensive, and contributes to the high cost of treatment.
The good news is that parvo can be easily avoided. Today’s vaccinations against the virus are highly developed, extremely effective and reasonably priced. Puppies should be given an initial course of vaccinations that begins at eight weeks of age and ends at sixteen weeks. Adults may be given boosters every three years or according to the schedule recommended by your veterinarian. If vaccinations are not begun until after sixteen weeks or even later, when the puppy has grown to adulthood, two vaccinations should be given within three to four weeks to immunize the dog.
One of the saddest parts of my job is having to euthanize an animal who did not have to get sick at all. With prevention so widely available and inexpensive, there is no reason any pet should die from this disease.
Please pass this article along to anyone you know whose puppy or adult dog is not up to date on parvo vaccinations. Let’s all do our part to keep our pets free from parvovirus.Carolyn Fletcher, DVM practices at Smith Veterinary Hospital in Santa Fe. Originally from Massachusetts, she shares her Cochiti Lake home with her husband John, 5 dogs, 2 doves and 5 cats.