Amazingly, half of the year is gone already and we have entered the “dog days” of summer. Those sultry, humid days of July and August bring more outdoor activities for the family and for our pets. As Dr. Sara Smith shared with us last Sunday, those fun days in the sun also bring dangers for our pets that we must be aware of. Along those lines, there is another threat lurking — a threat that thrives in the humid weather, is invisible and can be deadly. This danger is the parvovirus.
Almost every mammal species, including humans, has its own parvovirus. In humans, the virus is known as Fifth Disease and in cats the virus is more commonly referred to as Feline Distemper. Fortunately, the virus is specific to one species, in other words, the dog parvovirus will not infect cats or people. The canine parvovirus will affect most members of the dog family, including wolves, coyotes and foxes, and is the virus I will be discussing in the column.
Canine parvovirus is highly contagious and attacks the cells of the intestinal tract. Once infected, a dog will shed large amounts of the virus in their stool for several weeks. Another dog becomes infected when they have oral contact with the infected stool. Parvovirus is very hardy and can be carried on the dog’s hair and feet, as well as on contaminated crates, shoes and other objects.
Parvovirus can affect dogs of all ages, but majority of cases are seen in puppies between six weeks and six months of age. Some breeds seem to be more susceptible to picking up the virus. These breeds include Dobermans, Rottweilers and Pit bulls. The reason for the lower resistance in these breeds is not fully understood.
Approximately four to seven days after being exposed, symptoms of the illness will start. The puppy will become very lethargic, stop eating, run a fever and have vomiting and/or diarrhea. As time passes, the diarrhea may become profuse with mucous and blood. With the loss of fluids and lack of appetite, the puppy quickly becomes dehydrated and weak. The virus causes the intestinal tract to slough leaving them susceptible to absorption of bacteria into their system. Without treatment, death is inevitable.
Diagnosis of canine parvovirus consists of a snap test performed on the animal’s stool. The pet will also undergo a complete physical examination, a series of blood tests and possibly abdominal radiographs. Once diagnosed, the puppy will need to be hospitalized for approximately two to five days, depending on the severity of its symptoms and how it responds to therapy.
Because there is no cure for a virus, treatment is focused on supporting the puppy while his/her immune system fights off the virus. Hydration is maintained with intravenous fluids. Vomiting and stomach pain is controlled with medications and infection is kept at bay with injectable antibiotics. Once the puppy hasn’t vomited for 24 hours and can eat and drink on its own, the pet may go home with oral medications and a bland diet.
Outcome on how the puppy recovers depends on several factors, including the age and immune status of the dog and how quickly the treatment is started. In some cases, the virus takes its toll leaving the puppy with a permanently weakened immune system or a failing heart. Unfortunately, treatment can be costly and beyond affordability for owners, in which case those pets are humanely euthanized.
The good news is there are very effective vaccinations in protecting dogs from the canine parvovirus. These vaccinations should be administered by a veterinarian starting at six weeks of age and repeated every three to four weeks until it is four months of age. Sadly, many owners with a parvo-infected dog were told their puppy was “up to date on vaccinations” when in fact had only received one vaccination. It’s important to remember that your puppy will not be fully protected until they receive the entire series of vaccination boosters.
Once your puppy is home, keep it quarantined to a small area of the house or a crate. Your dog will continue to be a contagion risk to other dogs for up to two months after recovery. In my opinion, no new puppies or unvaccinated dogs should come onto the premises for at least one year. Clean and disinfect all objects your dog uses, including the crate, bowls and toys. The most effective disinfectant is household bleach in a 1:32 dilution. The bleach/water mixture must be left on the contaminated surface for at least 20 minutes before rinsing.
Keep yourself and your four-legged family member’s safe during these dog days of summer and enjoy them before they fly by!