Bringing your new puppy home can be an exciting and stressful time. Often a lot of waiting and preparation has gone into this moment and it’s a joy to see your new family member running around your home exploring. Whilst having a new family member is a joy, it also brings great responsibility to keep your puppy safe from disease and illness. Puppies’ immune systems are still developing when they are in the first few weeks of life, so it’s vital we do everything in our power to keep them safe. Parvovirus is one example of a life-threatening disease we need to protect our puppies from.
What is parvovirus?
Parvovirus is a potentially lethal virus that is highly transmissible between dogs. It is a virus that attacks the gastrointestinal tract, specifically the intestines, and destroys the intestinal lining. This is why we see bloody diarrhea as one of the signs. Bloody diarrhea indicates intestinal damage in the case of parvovirus infection. When the virus infects the intestines, it reduces the ability of the intestinal walls to function as normal. This means it's harder for your dog to absorb vital nutrients and fluids from the gut needed for daily functions.
Later on, in the disease process, the virus moves from the gastrointestinal tract to the lymph nodes and bone marrow. Parvovirus can also permanently damage the muscle of the heart in affected dogs. The complications of parvovirus extend well beyond the initial infection. This is because damage to the intestines, heart, and bone marrow can be permanent and affect your dog's overall health in the future.
Parvovirus is transmitted most commonly through the fecal-oral route. This is when your puppy’s mouth or tongue comes into contact with contaminated feces, and infection develops.
There are other ways of disease transmission. Parvovirus can be carried on people or objects who have come into contact with feces containing the virus. The virus is passed on when that person or object comes into contact with your vulnerable puppy.
It takes around three to seven days from exposure for your dog to start showing signs of parvovirus. If you have more than one dog in your home, they can all become infected.
Parvovirus is a very stable virus and can live 5-6 months in the environment. This means puppies can still become infected months after the virus has been deposited into the ground.
What are the signs of parvovirus?
Parvovirus can cause many signs and have many long-term complications. The most common signs we see are related to the gastrointestinal tract. Whenever a puppy starts to show the signs listed below it's vital to seek veterinary care sooner rather than later. This is because puppies can deteriorate quickly and even die from this disease.
Signs of parvovirus include:
- Diarrhea that progresses to bloody diarrhea
- Signs of dehydration: sunken eyes, skin tenting
- Pale, white, or grey mucous membranes
- A bloated belly
- Dogs using the prayer position- a sign of belly pain.
- Rapid weight loss or failure to put on weight
- Refusing to drink water
What dogs are most commonly affected by parvovirus?
Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated puppies between the ages of 2 weeks and around 6 months are most commonly affected. It can affect any breed or gender. It is thought that black and tan dogs are more likely to get parvovirus, but there is no scientific evidence to back this up currently, just anecdotal suggestions from veterinarians.
Parvovirus infections tend to be worse in the summer months, but your puppy can catch parvovirus year-round.
Parvovirus is seen more commonly in geographical areas that have low vaccination rates in the dog populations. Vaccinations prevent disease, so the more unvaccinated dogs there are, the higher the chance of rapid transmission once the virus is shed in an area.
How is parvovirus treated?
Parvovirus needs urgent veterinary care for any hope of a full recovery, so if you are at all concerned visit a veterinarian.
The first step at the vet clinic is to confirm the diagnosis of parvovirus. This is done with a fecal swab and rapid bedside test. Results can confirm if your dog has the dreaded parvovirus in under thirty minutes.
Once parvovirus has been confirmed, treatment involves intensive round-the-clock care. Puppies lose large amounts of fluid through vomiting and bloody diarrhea and have little reserves to call upon as they are so small. Parvovirus patients need intravenous fluids to replace these losses.
Even though parvovirus is a virus, antibiotics are still given to fight secondary bacterial infections. These infections are from bacteria in the gut that cross through the damaged intestines into the bloodstream, causing life-threatening endotoxemia or sepsis.
Other supportive medications given in the hospital are anti-nausea medications, gastro protectants, pain relief, and electrolytes.
Your puppy may need extra help with feeding and so a feeding tube may be used to help provide nutrition whilst your puppy is in hospital.
Hospital stays can range from 3 days up to 21 days of 24-hour care. When your puppy is no longer having bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and eating unaided they can be discharged home.
For some pet parents, the cost of hospitalization is too great. There is a second course of treatment available but it is not as effective as the one described above. This course of treatment involves daily injections of antibiotics, pain relief, anti-nausea, and fluids under the skin. You will need to go back to the veterinary clinic daily for repeat medications. Some dogs will sadly pass away with this treatment but there are a few who manage to pull through. This option is still costly when you consider that daily visits for one to two weeks add up.
For some owners, the cost of either option is too great, and humane pet euthanasia is the kindest option. This is because, without aggressive medical therapy, your puppy will become very dehydrated, weak, and succumb to infection. It is a very painful, distressing way to die and one that can be avoided with humane euthanasia.
How can I prevent my dog from getting parvovirus?
Whilst there are a few things you can do as an owner to reduce the chances of your dog contracting parvovirus, there is nothing that completely eliminates the risk of parvovirus disease to your dog.
Vaccinating your dog against parvovirus is key in the prevention of parvovirus. Parvovirus vaccinations are given every four weeks from the age of 6-8 weeks up until 16 weeks of age. Your dog will then need a booster a year after their last puppy booster. From there either yearly or triannually boosting for parvovirus is advised depending on the brand of vaccine your veterinarian stocks. It’s very important to keep your puppies vaccinations up to date and to complete the whole puppy booster course so that their immune system is boosted enough to fight off a real parvovirus infection. Incomplete puppy vaccine schedules will not completely protect from disease, and we have seen puppies who have had some vaccinations still die of parvovirus.
Another key element in the prevention of parvovirus is reducing the risk of exposure. Do not take your puppy out to high-risk areas such as dog parks or to the beach where lots of dogs mingle. It’s not recommended to socialize your puppy with unvaccinated dogs at all due to the risk of parvovirus transmission. Try and avoid putting your puppy down on the concrete if out and about. Instead, carry them so they still see and hear the world, without the risk of contracting a disease.
If you are wanting to take your puppy to puppy classes, make sure that the class has a vaccination policy. Most puppy classes, especially vet clinic-led ones will have compulsory vaccination as an entry requirement. These classes usually use an area safe for puppies that have been disinfected pre and post-class. This means your puppy can still get the socialization they need with other dogs, without the risk of getting an infection.
I recently lost a puppy to parvovirus, how long should I wait before getting another?
We recommend waiting up to a year, but a minimum of 6 months as the virus can live around 6 months in your home or backyard and be a potential source of infection to your new puppy.
What is the survival rate for parvovirus?
The survival rate of hospitalized patients tends to be good, with around 85-90% of patients making a recovery. The survival rate of puppies treated outside the hospital on an outpatient basis is much lower.
How much does it cost to treat parvovirus?
Hospitalized intensive care for the treatment of parvovirus can often cost many thousands of dollars. Daily injectable medications on an outpatient care basis can cost around $200-500 per visit.
What payment options are there for parvovirus treatment?
It will depend on the clinic. Most accept cash, debit, credit, or cheque. Some clinics accept payment through companies like Afterpay. Other clinics work with finance companies who can front you the money for treatment and you pay the finance company back separately, such as Scratchpay. Most clinics do not offer payment plans for the treatment of parvovirus.
What disinfectants kill parvovirus?
Bleach is effective in killing parvovirus on surfaces such as concrete. It's important to thoroughly rinse the bleach off after use, as bleach can cause oral and gastric ulceration in dogs if eaten.
Parvovirus is a lethal, contagious disease. It is preventable by vaccination and keeping your puppy indoors until fully vaccinated.
Whilst the recovery rate for hospitalized puppies with parvovirus is high, the costs associated with this are large, and not every family can afford this kind of intensive care. Sadly many puppies get euthanized every year after being diagnosed with parvovirus due to the complexity of the disease and the costs involved in treatment. Puppies who are not treated in a hospital environment have a lower chance of survival.
If your puppy is showing any of the signs of parvovirus, or you are concerned that your puppy may have come into contact with a parvovirus-infected dog, contact our BetterVet veterinarians for an appointment. The sooner veterinary help is sought, the better your puppy’s chances of survival are.