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Canine Parvovirus: Symptoms And Prevention

Updated on November 11, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.


Puppies And Canine Seniors Are Most Vulnerable

It sounds like an ad for a low-budget, 1950's Sci-fi horror movie. "It appeared in the late 70's, silently and without warning. It attacked the white blood cells, disabling the body's defense mechanisms, and ate away at the intestinal lining of its victims.

It invaded the heart, causing congestive heart failure, and, after one short week of agonizing illness, killed its victims, mostly the young or the aged. It couldn't be stopped, surviving temperature extremes and most disinfectants. And, unlike others of its kind, it survived for months outside its host environment."

"They gave it a name: CANINE PARVOVIRUS and they set out to destroy it. But they couldn't" and to this day, canine Parvovirus stalks the planet, claiming the lives of unprotected dogs."

I don't mean to make light of such a serious and insidious disease but in researching it, some of the stuff I read made it sound like a 1950’s sci-fi thriller.

But, Parvo, as it's generally referred to, is all of the above. With one major emphasis: it's preventable and treatable.

What Is Canine Parvovirus (CPV)

A highly contagious viral disease, CPV is spread primarily through the stool of infected dogs. What makes CPV so insidious is that, unlike most viruses that die within hours or days outside of its host, the parvo virus can live for months in the environment.

Most scientists believe it can survive up to a year outside the host regardless of precipitation or temperature extremes.

Consider this scenario: On Valentine’s Day an owner takes her dog for a walk in the park, only she doesn’t realize he’s infected with CPV.

The dog does his business and she scoops, as every responsible dog walker does. But, the CPV remains at that spot.

On Thanksgiving you bring your dog for a walk in the same park and, because dogs can detect echoes of long ago events, he sniffs that spot. That's how easily he can become infected.


While the virus is heavily concentrated in the stool, it’s also present in the infected dog’s bodily fluids, which means that long after the "slobber" has evaporated, the virus remains.

So, if you step on an infected piece of ground, or step in dog mess, you can bring the virus home with you.

There Are Two Types Of CPV

The most common is the intestinal form of the infection, which produces some pretty serious symptoms.

Infected dogs will have severe, often bloody, diarrhea, vomiting, dramatic weight loss, listlessness, fever (although they sometimes become hypothermic and have a lower than normal body temperature), and will usually lose their appetite.

This form of the virus affects the dog’s nutrient and fluid absorption, so he may become weak and dehydrated.

You may notice redness of the mouth and eyelids; tissues which are normally moist but are now somewhat dried out.

His underbelly may be sensitive to the touch.

The less common form of CPV attacks the heart muscle of young puppies and is often fatal.

Diagnosis, Treatment And Prevention

Canine Parvovirus is diagnosed using a combination of physical exam, lab work, X-rays and ultrasounds. Since it’s a viral disease, there’s no cure for it, so it’s a matter of treating the symptoms and giving antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections.

The recovery rate is about 70% in adult dogs, but the prognosis isn’t quite as rosy in puppies, because their immune system isn’t firing on all cylinders yet.

Present vaccination protocols call for puppies to receive the parvo vaccine at 6, 9, and 12 weeks of age; adults get a modified live canine parvo vaccine and an annual booster.

If you plan to board, show or travel with your dog, it's a good idea to get him an additional booster 3-4 weeks beforehand.

Until your puppy is fully protected (about two weeks after the last shot), avoid visits to shelters, parks, pet stores or places where dogs gather.


The Long And Short Of It

Although the virus hangs around in the environment for an unusually long time, it’s a rapidly moving disease.

Symptoms generally appear within 5 to 7 days of contracting the virus, although it can take up to two weeks.

Untreated dogs usually succumb about a week after clinical signs appear.

A dog that recovers from CPV will continue to have a suppressed immune system making it vulnerable to other diseases, plus it is still an infection risk to other dogs for the next couple of months.

Household bleach (4 oz. to a gallon of water) is the least expensive disinfectant; there are others on the market labeled as parvocidal.

As much as one can do, everything an infected or recovering dog uses should be disinfected before and after use.

Prevention is everything, but if you’re unsure about your dog’s vaccination status and he appears sick, don’t wait to see if he can "shake it off" because you may delay life-saving treatment.

© 2012 Bob Bamberg


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