You might think canine parvovirus is a disease of the past, but it’s still around
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Shannon Gillespie knew something was wrong when her 23-month-old border collie, Soda, didn’t want to eat and wasn’t energetic.
“She’s nonstop at home,” Gillespie says. “I took her to the vet because her not eating and being less active was just not normal.”
Soda had a fever and lab work showed that her white blood cell count was high, so she was clearly fighting off something. The veterinarian administered IV fluids and prescribed antibiotics to help ward off any infection.
The next night Soda had diarrhea, and when Gillespie took her back to the vet, they knew exactly what the problem was based on the distinctive odor of the diarrhea: Soda had parvovirus. An in-office test for the disease quickly confirmed the diagnosis.
Parvo first appeared 40 years ago, in 1978. There is a vaccine against it, but the disease is still seen frequently, says Colin R. Parrish, Ph.D., John M. Olin professor of virology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
That can occur for several reasons. One is that no vaccine is 100 percent effective. In rare cases, some individuals fail to mount adequate antibody levels to routine vaccines. That may have been the case with Soda. Some puppies don’t receive vaccinations. And finally, maternal immunity — maternal antibodies passed from mother to pups — can interfere with a vaccine’s effectiveness.
“One of the things we’ve become aware of in the last few years is that the duration of maternal immunity is actually longer than people used to think it was,” Dr. Parrish says. “The old rule used to be that once the puppy was 12 weeks old, you could give the last vaccination and the puppy would be protected.”
Now, he says, in 20 to 30 percent of puppies, maternal immunity may persist until 16 to 20 weeks of age. The protection provided by maternal antibodies fades, but is still enough to prevent complete immunization by the vaccine.
To ensure adequate protection, puppies should receive a dose of canine parvovirus vaccine when they are 14 to 16 weeks old, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dogs in a high-risk environment — such as a shelter or who have significant exposure to other dogs or contaminated environments — may benefit from a final dose when they are 18 to 20 weeks old.
Parvo is deadly. It usually strikes puppies but can occur at any age. Signs include lethargy, appetite loss, abdominal pain, fever, vomiting and severe, sometimes bloody, diarrhea. The virus attacks the intestines, and it’s the sloughing of the intestinal lining that causes the characteristic smell of the diarrhea.
There’s no cure — only supportive treatment such as IV fluids to help maintain hydration and antibiotics to ward off secondary bacterial infections. Soda was too weak to eat, and required a nasoesophageal feeding tube to receive nutrition. Her diarrhea was so frequent that she required 11 days of hospitalization so she could receive round-the-clock care. She developed skin rashes on her hips, so those areas had to be shaved and treated. She needed medication for nausea and pain.
That level of care is expensive. Depending on the length of time the dog is hospitalized, the cost can run into the thousands of dollars.
The virus can survive in an indoor environment for two months and outdoors for months or years. Gillespie treated her car, clothing, the inside of her home and her yard with disinfectant to kill the virus. She quarantined all four of her dogs at home to help prevent spreading the virus. It took three months for Soda to fully recover and be declared free of the disease.