Parvo in puppies is a frightening disease.
Watching puppies suffering from the severe gastrointestinal symptoms of canine parvovirus and trying to help them survive the infection is one of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced as a veterinarian.
Parvo Used to Be Much More Deadly
I was a vet student in inner-city Philadelphia when parvo outbreaks were commonplace in the 1980s. We sometimes lost more than 50% of our puppies in the parvo ward.
Gowned up in head-to-toe disposable garb in a windowless isolation ward, I tried to help these tender little hearts survive.
Little bodies covered in feces and vomit, I cleaned them up. Amid IV lines as big as their little limbs, I took tiny amounts of blood from their tired, fragile bodies.
I administered their IV meds and palpated their fragile abdomens to make sure there was no intussusception, and they looked up at me with big, sad puppy eyes. “Please save me,” those eyes said.
I unfortunately began to develop a sense of which of my patients would make it and who I would probably lose in the next 8 hours.
In a room with the distinct, stomach-turning odor of parvo infection, I prayed for my little patients.
What Is the Survival Rate of Parvo in Puppies?
Can a puppy with parvo survive? Yes. In fact, puppies today are much more likely to survive than in years past.
The canine parvovirus survival rate today is about 75–80%. That’s a huge improvement from virtually 0% survival around the time of the first big parvo outbreak in 1978.
Some studies show survival rates today of as high as 90% with intensive veterinary care — but don’t let that statistic fool you. Parvo in puppies is still a very serious, sometimes fatal disease.
- Survival generally requires intensive veterinary care and carries a high emotional and monetary price tag.
- Prevention through vaccination is essential.
Today, patients who survive the first 3–4 days showing improvement with intensive care typically survive.
The cost is in the thousands with no guarantees. Treatment for parvo in a dog typically costs $1,500–$4,000.
What Is Parvo?
Canine parvovirus infection is a contagious viral disease of dogs.
Other species have their own parvoviruses. Feline “distemper” (panleukopenia) is a parvovirus, for example.
The canine parvovirus emerged in the United States in 1978. It is believed that a virus similar to feline panleukopenia mutated and crossed to canines. The disease spread worldwide very quickly, killing thousands of dogs and infecting millions.
The first canine parvo vaccine was developed by 1981 — but not after thousands of families had lost their beloved canine friend.
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How Do Dogs Get Parvo?
Parvovirus is everywhere and anywhere.
It’s ubiquitous. Many disinfectants won’t kill it.
An infected dog can shed the virus in its feces in extremely large numbers. Although a dog usually sheds the virus for only about 2 weeks, once in the environment the parvovirus can exist for months inside and out.
The virus can survive even in winter. But the warmer the climate, the longer the virus can survive.
Puppies are most susceptible because of their immature immune system. Until a puppy is about 4 months old, they are in a precarious position regarding protection from parvo (and other viral diseases, such as distemper).
- Today, puppies are born with some protective parvo antibodies from their mom, but all antibodies begin to drop quickly after birth.
- Early parvo vaccination begins to protect the puppies.
- There are times, however, when puppies are still vulnerable to contracting parvo because neither the maternal antibodies nor the vaccination is totally protective.
Also, puppies who have other challenges are more susceptible to parvo. Concurrent disease, a high parasite burden, malnourishment or pups born from an unvaccinated mom are less able to mount a good immune response, even if vaccinated.
This is why puppy clients are instructed to keep pups away from heavily trafficked areas like dog parks and limit exposure to other dogs until the puppy is about 16 weeks of age.
Stages and Symptoms of Parvo in Puppies
Once a puppy or dog becomes infected, it takes 3–7 days for symptoms to appear.
Stages of Parvo
- The virus invades the tonsils or lymph nodes of the throat, then the lymphocytes, then the bloodstream.
- The virus then attacks the bone marrow and the cells that line the small intestine. Very young dogs can also experience infection in the heart.
- The damage to the bone marrow causes a puppy’s immature immune system to become damaged, letting the virus create havoc in the gastrointestinal tract.
The initial symptoms of parvo are usually:
These are followed by GI symptoms:
- Diarrhea (often bloody)
Then the puppy develops:
- Associated abdominal pain
The fluid losses from the diarrhea and vomiting cause severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Sepsis, increased heart rate, intussusception of the intestines, seizures, shock and death can occur within a few days.
Any dog, especially puppies with bloody diarrhea, vomiting and depression should be taken to the vet. Parvo must be ruled out.
Canine parvovirus can be diagnosed by a veterinarian with a quick in-house ELISA test on feces. The results are known within 15 minutes.
Feces can also be sent to a laboratory for a more accurate test (PCR), but this takes more time. False negatives are possible with any testing.
If your vet is suspicious of parvo, she will run a white blood cell count immediately. Since the parvovirus attacks the bone marrow early in the disease process, a low white blood cell count can be a big warning sign.
A puppy with bloody diarrhea, a low white blood cell count and a positive ELISA test for parvo means treatment must begin.
How Do You Treat Parvo in Puppies?
Parvo treatment almost always begins with hospitalization in a full-service veterinary hospital.
A very sick puppy with parvo is going to need intensive IV fluid therapy, 24-hour monitoring and in-house laboratory services.
How long does it take for a puppy to recover from parvo? The typical hospital stay is 5–7 days.
How We Treat Parvo
Here is what to expect if you are faced with the heartbreak of trying to save a puppy with parvo:
- After diagnostics are done and parvo is confirmed or highly suspected, your puppy will have an intravenous line put in their tiny little paw so they can benefit from 24-hour-a-day intravenous fluids. This IV line is usually attached to a pump that administers a constant rate of infusion.
- Maintaining electrolyte and glucose levels and tracking the white blood cell count are important, so there are frequent blood tests to monitor things.
- Potassium, dextrose, antibiotics, anti-nausea and pain medications are frequently used as indicated by the blood tests and clinical signs. All of these additives and medications are given via IV. These pups can’t tolerate anything by mouth when they are critically ill.
- A special product called a colloid might be used intravenously to give more nutrients than just IV fluids.
- Trained nursing care is essential. Heart rate, checking the gums for good color, and hydration status (capillary refill time) and blood pressure must be monitored.
- Nurses must also be aware of the puppy’s comfort and cleanliness. These pups must be kept clean and dry. Left to their own devices, they would be covered in feces and vomit.
- Critical cases might need a feeding tube and a central IV line.
- Abdominal palpation is done every few hours to make sure the puppy has not developed an intestinal intussusception. This is when one segment of the intestine telescopes in on another section, causing a painful, life-threatening abdominal emergency.
The Parvo Isolation Unit
Isolation protocols are essential when dealing with parvo cases, and many veterinary hospitals are not equipped or built to follow intensive isolation techniques:
- The parvo unit should be housed far away from the rest of the hospital population, hopefully on a separate floor.
- The room is sealed off from the rest of the hospital.
- Anyone entering the unit must be completely covered, usually in disposable hospital gowns, shoe covers, gloves, etc.
- If any feces or vomit gets through to the person’s clothing, everything must be changed before leaving the unit and entering the main hospital.
- Treatment sheets, stethoscopes, thermometers — in other words, any hospital equipment or paperwork for the parvo unit — must be totally separated from the rest of the building.
Every time a person enters and exits the parvo unit is time-consuming, adding to the intensive nature and expense of treating a parvo puppy.
Even laundry is time-consuming. Although much of the bedding, etc., can be disposable, any soiled laundry should not be tracked through the main hospital area and should be washed separately, bleached twice and completely dried.
People visiting their puppies must follow the intense isolation protocols as well.
Treating Parvo at Home
Adolescent or older dogs who contract parvo have a better chance of survival. Most likely these older dogs will have shorter hospital stays or even be treated as outpatients.
Treating puppies as outpatients carries a much lower survival rate and is done only when financial concerns are extreme or veterinary care is not available.
Treatment at home should be done under the careful guidance of a veterinarian:
- Ideally, all parvo patients should get rehydrated and stabilized in the hospital.
- Then, if stable enough, they are sent home on a labor intensive regimen for the client. Subcutaneous fluids and injections are given at home. Nursing care, including cleaning up vomit and diarrhea, is intense.
If these dogs return to the veterinary hospital for any daily care, isolation procedures must be followed.
Recent studies have published that survival rates can reach 75% — as long as there is careful veterinary monitoring and initial hospital stabilization.
In the video below, Dr. Greg Martinez, DVM, explains more about treating parvo in puppies:
Is Parvo Contagious to Humans?
No, humans cannot get parvo from dogs.
It seems that just about every mammal species has its very own parvovirus, including cats and humans. But these viruses are species-specific, meaning that canine parvovirus cannot be transmitted to a human or a cat.
Even though it is theorized that the canine parvo epidemic could have come from a mutated cat parvovirus, cats were not affected by the canine parvo epidemic.
Rehabilitation and Life After Parvo
Puppies who have survived the critical phase of parvo are sent home and should get stronger and happier in a short period of time.
Clients are usually instructed to follow careful feeding guidelines and give antibiotics and/or other GI meds for a week or so. Puppies should be kept away from other canines for about 1 month.
Puppies and dogs who have recovered from parvo should go on to lead a totally normal life.
Take Vaccination Seriously
Parvo is rare in a well-vaccinated population of dogs, although it can still occur.
- Take puppy vaccination schedules extremely seriously. This is when your puppy is most susceptible to parvo.
- If an outbreak of parvo occurs in your area, check with your vet to see if a booster is suggested for your dog.
Can a Vaccinated Dog Get Parvo?
Yes, it is possible — although rare — for a vaccinated dog to contract parvo.
Never let a severe case of bloody diarrhea and vomiting go undiagnosed. Get to the vet!
- Brashear, Megan, CVT, VTS (ECC). “Small Pets in Big Trouble.” BSAVA Companion 2015 no. 2 (February 2015): 20–21. https://www.bsavalibrary.com/content/journals/10.22233/20412495.0215.20.
- Brooks, Wendy, DVM, DABVP. “Parvovirus in Dogs.” Veterinary Partner. May 8, 2018. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4951463.
- Baker Institute for Animal Health. “Canine Parvovirus.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/baker-institute/about-us/animal-health-articles/canine-parvovirus.
- Shell, Linda, DVM, DACVIM. “Canine Parvovirus Infection.” VIN. 2018.
- Venn, Emilee C., DVM, DACVECC, et al. “Evaluation of an Outpatient Protocol in the Treatment of Canine Parvoviral Enteritis.” Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care 27, no. 1 (January 2017): 52–65. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27918639/.