Protecting Against Parvo


With all the wonderful things about spring, there are also some concerns . . . including the canine parvo virus.

Parvo is short for Canine Parvovirus Type 2 — or CPV2 — which is a serious threat to puppies and unvaccinated dogs.  Highly contagious and spread by feces, cases of the virus are often detected in springtime. 

Becky Smith, a certified veterinary technician and vet tech specialist (meaning she’s had two additional years of training) at Rose City Veterinary Hospital in Portland, says parvo “is found in pretty much every environment.  You can’t get rid of it — you just have to make sure they’re well-vaccinated if they are exposed to it, which all dogs will be just by going outside.” 

Puppies are most vulnerable because of their sensitive immune systems, but, Smith says, older dogs can be at higher risk too, particularly if they have other issues compromising their immune system.  “Puppies get their original immunity from their moms, so if mom is healthy and vaccinated then they’re well protected,” Smith explains.  “If mom doesn’t have any vaccine or hasn’t been vaccinated in awhile, then she doesn’t have any antibodies to pass along and the puppies aren’t protected.”

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), exposure to parvo results in fever, vomiting and severe, often bloody, diarrhea.  In addition to contact with feces, parvo is spread by direct contact between dogs.  The virus is sturdy, and can live on surfaces, bowls, collars, leashes, equipment, and the hands and clothing of people.  It’s even tough enough to withstand freezing temperatures.  “If one dog is infected, what usually happens,” says Smith, is that “they have diarrhea and spread a lot of virus in the feces and it gets in the environment, even in the soil, and it’s almost impossible to get rid of.”  Dogs walk through it, then clean their feet, and . . . soon they’re showing signs of infection.

Smith says that in backyards with a lot of sunlight, parvo will dissipate in five to six months; add a month or so if the yard is shady.  During cold months the virus is “cocooned” to survive the cold.  One bright spot is that parvo doesn’t do well indoors, so if everything is well-cleaned, “within four weeks it’s pretty much gone,” Smith says.

Because parvo is so insidious, it’s vital to vaccinate against it.  Puppies must be six to eight weeks old to begin shots, which are administered in a series every three to four weeks until pups reach 16 weeks.  “The reason for that is because the vaccine can’t overcome the mom’s maternal antibodies, and you never know how much the mom has passed on,” says Smith, “so we have to give them a couple vaccines with the last one given at 16 weeks to make sure they’re well-protected.”  After the initial series pups should get one shot a year later, and every three years after that.

What to look for

Smith says keep an eye on your dog’s stool.  It’s normal for stools to vary in consistency and even the occasional bout of diarrhea.  “Once or twice is not a concern,” Smith says, “but if your dog is vomiting and having diarrhea, get them checked — they get dehydrated really quickly.  It doesn’t always mean they have parvo; they could just have GI upset, but it’s easy to spot parvo and to stop it if we see them early.”

Treatment for parvo is not cheap or easy, so vaccination is definitely your best bet.  Affected dogs are given IV fluids to counteract dehydration from the diarrhea; without early treatment, shock can come on quickly.   

Worse still, if the bacterium escapes the gastrointestinal tract and enters other systems, a dog can become septic and die.  Parvo-infected dogs sometimes need plasma infusions.

Smith recalls seeing parvo-infected puppies recover within a day or two of treatment.  That’s not so common anymore.  “Now we’re seeing really, really sick dogs in the ER and ICU for four or five days or more and getting plasma transfusions — costing up to a couple thousand dollars.”  No one is sure why the virus is harder to treat nowadays, but the vaccine protects against all current known mutations.

One last tip offered by Smith is this:  keep your dog’s vaccination records current if you move or change vets.  “It’s important for us to know what vaccines they’ve had in the past so we don’t have to vaccinate as much or as often,” Smith says.

That’s better for your dog’s health, and your pocketbook.