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Parvo and puppies

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

Common sense disclaimer: As with everything else on this blog, it’s critical to seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian, preferably one that is board certified in theriogenology (reproductive science) for reproductive matters. This website, its blog, and its courses are NOT designed nor intended to replace the need for a qualified veterinarian, but instead to help educate people to to work optimally with their veterinarians. All recommendations should be reviewed with qualified professionals, such as a board certified reproductive veterinarian, prior to implementation in a breeding program. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian. Readers assume all risks associated with use of material on this site. More here.

Parvo is an extremely contagious disease that poses particular risk to puppies since they have not had the benefit of vaccination and since their immune systems are not yet fully developed.

There is a stigma associated with parvo. It’s often seen as a “puppy mill” disease, and rightly so, as puppy mills have terrible hygiene and preventative practices. However, even the most careful, reputable, diligent breeder can have an inadvertent exposure to parvo. Puppy mills should be ashamed, but for those of us who have taken every precaution, we should go a bit easier on ourselves—parvo (just like the copious, loose, smelly poop that accompanies it) happens. Even to the best of us.

Parvo summary (more details in below):

  • Incubation: Dogs show symptoms within 3-10 days of exposure to the virus

  • Transmitted: Oral contact with infected feces; the virus can be transmitted on objects and shoes

  • Viral survival: Virus can live over a year on objects and soil

  • Intestinal Parvo symptoms include: diarrhea (smelly and often bloody), vomiting, lethargy, quick weight loss, dehydration, weakness, fever

  • Puppies are more susceptible than adults, particularly from ages 6 weeks to 6 months. Stressed puppies and dogs are also at greater risk.

  • Prevention: vaccination and avoidance of exposure prior to vaccination. Puppies are most at risk in the stage between protection from maternal antibodies and vaccination

  • Disinfectants: Bleach is the only “household” cleaner that can kill parvo. There are several kennel disinfectants, such as Rescue/Accel, that also kill Parvo. Look on labels specifically for a “parvicide.”

  • Mortality rate in puppies: over 90% if untreated; 5-20% if treated early and aggressively

**IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR PUPPY OR DOG HAS PARVO, STOP READING THIS IMMEDIATELY AND SEE YOUR VETERINARIAN!** This is a layperson discussion of the disease, not veterinary advice, so please seek professional assistance at the first hint or sign of infection!

Types of parvo

Parvo can affect the cardiac system as well as the intestinal system. The cardiac variant is not as common as the intestinal variant.

Cardiac parvo is more likely to occur in puppies that are younger. Infection most often occurs when the mother is infected and the puppies are still in utero. Most puppies infected with this variant die.

Intestinal parvo is contracted orally. It begins to replicate in the dog’s throat and spreads into the bloodstream. When it reaches the intestinal system, it begins to kill the tissue in the intestines. As this infection progresses, it can weaken the intestines to the point where intestinal contents can leak into the blood stream, causing sepsis, and often death. (Sepsis is when a body has a massive immune response to a systemic bacterial infection that gets into the bloodstream. The combination of the bacterial toxins and the massive immune response can cause organ failure and death. It has also been called “blood poisoning.”)

If Intestinal parvo is caught and treated early enough dogs and puppies can often survive.

How Parvo is contracted and how to avoid infection

Parvo virus is transmitted from feces. A dog sick with parvo can have virus in its feces for as long as three weeks after recovering. The virus can live on objects or even soil. I’ve seen conflicting reports of how long it can remain viable, but they generally run from 6 months to up to several years. Up to one year seems to be the most common estimate, however other sources often say up to three years. If in doubt, you can always ask your veterinarian to titer your dog.

Dams should be vaccinated prior to pregnancy so that they can provide their puppies with maternal antibodies. Puppies that do not get colostrum within the first 24 hours are at greater risk for all infections as they miss that early window for maximum maternal protection.

When an uninfected dog or puppy comes in oral contact with the virus, it can become infected. The virus can be transported on objects such as shoes. This is why it’s important not to go to places where there are a lot of dogs when you have unvaccinated puppies.

Places to avoid include dog parks and pet stores. If you have to go to the vet, let them know you have unvaccinated puppies and try not to let the puppies on the floor of the clinic. Some breeders will request home visits or request that the veterinarian see the puppies in the car at their clinic so the puppies have less of a chance of exposure.

Another potential source of infection is visitors. Many breeders don’t let any visitors near unvaccinated puppies. Others require visitors to inform them of any contact with dogs prior to a visit. Other means of protection include requiring guests to wear booties or walk through a parvicide footbath.

Bleach is the only common household cleaner known to kill parvo. There are a number of kennel disinfectants that also kill parvo. Look specifically on the label for a “parvicide.” When in doubt, call or email the manufacturer. Most are very responsive and helpful.

If you want to use a footbath, contact the manufacturer and ask if the disinfectant you use is

  1. Suitable for a footbath

  2. What is the dilution you should use for a footbath

  3. How long will the disinfectant remain viable for a footbath (how often do you need to change it).

There are several ways to make a footbath. You can use a large cat litter box and fold a towel in the bottom. Soak the towel with your parvicide and request that people step on the towel, remain there for a count of 10 (or a duration suggested by your parvicide manufacturer), then step out to the other side of the box before entering your kennel or home. They should not retrace any of their steps prior to stepping in the footbath.

How deadly is Parvo?

Statistics seem to average about 90% or greater mortality for untreated dogs with parvo. The death toll can go down to as little as 20% or even 5% with treatment. That’s the estimated survival rate, but it doesn’t mean dogs will beunscathed, as some end up with long-term problems. Also, these statistics include adults, which have much more robust immune systems, and puppies may be at greater risk.

For the best chance of survival, treatment should be aggressive and start as early as possible. Treatment is also very expensive.

There is no preventative known other than vaccination. Dams must be vaccinated prior to pregnancy, and puppies must be vaccinated according to the schedule outlined by your veterinarian.

Treatment is supportive only and varies according to current veterinary knowledge and the specific condition of your dog. It can include electrolytes, antibiotics, and antivirals, and can be very costly.

Helpful links:

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