Updated: Feb 29, 2020
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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.