Most commonly known as 'parvo,' canine parvovirus is a highly contagious viral disease in dogs. It usually affects young puppies between 6 and 20 weeks old, but it can also affect older unvaccinated dogs.
The virus causes severe illness, particularly in very young and unvaccinated dogs, by invading cells in the body that divide rapidly, like bone marrow and tissues in the intestinal tract.
This article was reviewed by our expert veterinarian, Chris Vanderhoof (DMV).
How does a dog get parvo?
Thankfully, the parvovirus is not airborne, but it spreads quickly and efficiently through contact with contaminated surfaces in the environment.
Parvo is spread primarily through contaminated feces, but that doesn't mean you need the presence of solid wastes for the virus to be present. The virus can live on surfaces in kennels, on hands, on the ground, and on contaminated clothing.
Dogs can even carry the virus in their fur if they've come into contact with contaminated poop.
The virus is robust and can live for a long time (months to years, even) on surfaces. Many disinfectants are powerless to kill the virus, but diluted bleach effectively kills it off.
Parvo in puppies
Puppies older than six weeks are susceptible to parvovirus because during their first few weeks of life puppies still retain some of their mother's antibodies which help stave off illnesses like parvo.
According to research, the immune system of a young puppy is not developed enough to fight off an aggressive virus like parvo, which is why the disease is so dangerous to puppies.
Parvo vaccinations are given to puppies at 6, 8, and 12 weeks, and only when all three doses have been had your puppy is considered to be protected. Before this, puppy parents need to be extra cautious. Another dose of the vaccine is then given between 14 and 16 weeks to ensure adequate protection.
Certain breeds of dogs are at an increased risk for parvo. These breeds include:
- Labrador Retrievers;
- German Shepherd Dogs;
- Doberman Pinschers;
- American Staffordshire Terriers;
- English Springer Spaniels.
Symptoms of parvo in dogs
Parvovirus commonly affects the stomach and small intestines. It destroys cells and causes havoc with your dog's ability to absorb nutrients from food. It usually results in intestinal bleeding and anemia. Because of this, the sooner the virus is treated, the better your dog's chances are of overcoming it.
If your puppy has contracted parvo, you'll have a very sick little dog on your hands. Symptoms of parvo to look out for include:
- Bloody diarrhea;
- Weight loss;
- Loss of appetite;
These symptoms aren't exclusive to parvovirus, but you should take them seriously anytime you see them in your dog.
If you do suspect that your dog has contracted parvo, it's a good idea to contact your vet ahead of your visit so that they can take the necessary precautions to prevent the further spread of the virus to other dogs.
Parvo treatment, remedies, cures
As with all things, prevention is always better than cure. Ensuring that your pup is fully vaccinated before taking them out into the world or socializing with other dogs will go a long way in protecting your doggo from the virus.
Parvovirus has no cure, so treatment usually involves supporting your puppy's body while fighting off the virus. This care includes:
- Antiemetics to stop any vomiting;
- Intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration;
- Electrolyte and blood glucose correction;
- If necessary, a feeding tube will be used to ensure optimum nutrition.
If your dog is not severely ill, you can attempt treatment at home under the direction of your vet. This sort of treatment includes:
- A special diet that's easy for your puppy to digest;
- Antiemetics to stop vomiting;
- Medication to stop diarrhea;
- Additional fluids (subcutaneous if necessary).
My dog survived parvo – Now what?
If your puppy has made it through the worst of the virus and is on the mend, there are some things to keep in mind as they recover.
Your puppy has likely been given strong antibiotics and other medications to stop vomiting and diarrhea. Don't stop treatment because your puppy seems to be doing better.
Your dog's digestive tract has been through the most, so it's essential to ensure your puppy gets the best nutrition that's easy to digest.
They're likely to still have runny poops for a few days, but this should firm up as their regular diet resumes. Also, your puppy may be super hungry after not eating well. Don't allow them to gobble down large quantities. Instead, give them small amounts of food an hour or two apart.
Your puppy should be considered contagious for at least a month after their illness, so no visits to the dog park to avoid infecting other pups. If you have other pets, ensure that any adult dogs are up to date with their vaccinations. Similarly, cats should also be vaccinated as feline distemper is a type of parvovirus and can cause severe illness in cats.
Dr. Vanderhoof notes that cats should also be vaccinated as feline panleukopenia virus, sometimes referred to as feline distemper, is also a type of parvovirus.
You’ll need to disinfect your home thoroughly. Remove any potentially contaminated items from home or bleach them thoroughly to get rid of as much of the virus as possible.
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How do dogs get parvo?
Parvovirus is found in the environment – in homes, kennels, dog parks, and lawns. Infected dogs excrete the virus in their poop and vomit, infecting other puppies that come into contact.
Parvovirus is not airborne.
How long does parvo last?
This depends on various factors, but usually, the illness lasts around ten days.
The first 24 to 72 hours are the most critical and pose the highest risk of death. Getting your dog treatment as soon as possible can save their life.
Most hospitalized puppies stay in hospital for five to seven days, depending on the severity. After that, your puppy is still considered contagious for about a month.
How do I know if my puppy will survive parvo?
Parvovirus is very aggressive and has a very high mortality rate. The sooner you get a diagnosis and treatment, the higher your dog's chances are to survive parvo.
Dehydration and intestinal bleeding pose the highest risk.
Can cats and humans get parvo from dogs?
Humans cannot get parvo from dogs. Parvovirus is species-specific, so it isn't transmissible from dogs to humans. A type of parvovirus affects humans, but it's not the same as canine parvovirus (CPV).
Canine parvovirus can affect cats. Most cases in cats are mild in terms of symptoms, but there is a strain of canine parvovirus that affects cats quite severely, causing feline distemper.
According to Dr. Vanderhoof, canine parvovirus does not traditionally affect cats. Some recent mutated variants of the virus have shown the ability to affect cats, though this is still rare. Feline panleukopenia, which is a parvovirus that causes feline distemper, is unique to cats and cannot be spread to or from dogs.
How does parvo poop smell?
Parvo poops often contain blood and intestinal cells, which cause a smell like rotting meat. A distinctive sickly-sweet smell of decay should alert you that something is very wrong.
Signs your puppy is getting over parvo
Signs that your dog is on the mend include increased appetite, no more vomiting, less or no blood in their poops, and increased energy.
Can a dog get parvo twice?
Once a dog has recovered from parvo, it is unlikely that they will contract the virus again. The immunity from the virus lasts for several years, protecting your dog from reinfection.
It is theoretically possible for a dog to get parvo twice, but such chances are very slim.
How long should a dog with parvo be isolated?
Puppies diagnosed with parvo should be isolated for at least three weeks before heading out into the world again. If you're unsure, contact your vet.
What to feed a puppy with parvo?
A puppy with parvo will likely show very little interest in food. Don't try to force-feed your puppy. Offer things like low-sodium bone broth to replace fluids and offer some nutrients. Contact your vet if you're concerned.
Once your puppy is on the mend and shows signs that their appetite is returning, your vet will recommend an easily absorbed diet that is gentle on the tummy. Don't try to treat your puppy with table scraps or high-fat treats, as these are likely to cause an upset stomach.
Your vet may recommend home-made foods like a boiled, skinless chicken and white rice diet, fat free cheese, lean ground beef or turkey, and cooked pasta. Prescription diets that are highly digestible or high in calories may also be prescribed.
Once your dog regains their appetite, it is likely that they will be super hungry. Try not to allow your pup to gobble down large amounts of food. This is likely to backfire and cause digestive upset. Instead, give them small portions every one or two hours.