What is parvovirus in dogs?
Parvovirus is a highly contagious viral disease in dogs. Canine parvovirus is especially dangerous to unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated puppies between six weeks and six months old, although older dogs can get it too, especially if they've got other health issues like cancer. Parvovirus was first identified in the late 1970s and has spread around the world, affecting millions of dogs.
If the disease is caught early, and your dog is treated straight away, there's a good chance — up to 90% — they'll pull through. But if treatment is delayed, the odds of survival diminish significantly. In fact, without treatment, many dogs will die from this virus.
Parvovirus is highly contagious between dogs.
Parvovirus is shed in the faeces of infected dogs. This means that other dogs can get parvovirus just from being in close contact with a dog that's already got it, when they sniff or eat other dog’s poop.
This virus is tough — it can survive in the environment for months, even possibly years, and is often resistant to many common cleaning products and detergents. This means that dogs can catch the virus just from being in a place where an infected dog has been, via their food bowls, bedding, or even just by walking somewhere that an infected dog has walked recently. Humans can accidentally spread parvo, too. If you've been near an infected dog or a place where one has been, you could carry the virus back on your clothes or shoes.
Virus Exposure Information for Dogs
|Exposure||Exposure to the virus happens when your dog comes into contact with the virus via an infected dog or in a contaminated area.|
|Incubation period||Following exposure, the incubation period begins, lasting about 3 to 7 days. During this time, the virus multiplies in your dog's system, though your dog appears healthy.|
|Onset of symptoms||Symptoms usually manifest 5 to 7 days post-exposure, but it could take between 2 to 14 days. Common signs include loss of appetite, fever, vomiting, and severe diarrhoea, which may be bloody.|
|Severe symptoms and treatment||Without prompt treatment, symptoms can worsen, leading to dehydration, shock, or even death. Visiting the vet immediately is crucial for symptom management, rehydration, and addressing any secondary infections.|
|Recovery or deterioration||With timely and appropriate treatment, your dog should recover - usually in around 7-10 days. You'll notice improved eating and less vomiting. Delay in treatment could lead to serious complications.|
|Post-recovery||Post-recovery, your dog can still shed the virus in their faeces for a few weeks. It's advisable to isolate them from other dogs and thoroughly clean all areas they've accessed.|
What happens during infection?
The virus first targets areas like the lymph nodes or tonsils, quickly multiplying and attacking the white blood cells that help fight illnesses.
Next, it moves through the bloodstream to the bone marrow and the small intestine's lining. In the bone marrow, it further lowers the number of white blood cells, making it easier for the virus to take over your dog's gut.
In the gut, the virus damages the intestinal walls, breaking down the protective internal layers of the intestines. This causes signs such as vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration, as it becomes more difficult for your dog to absorb nutrients and water. The internal damage risks letting bacteria in, which could lead to further infection, sepsis and shock.
The virus has an incubation period of about 3 to 7 days, meaning you might not see any symptoms at first. But once you notice symptoms, getting to the vet fast is crucial.
The symptoms of parvovirus in dogs typically include:
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting (can contain blood)
- Diarrhoea (can contain blood)
- Abdominal pain and swelling
You should go to the vet immediately if your dog shows any of these symptoms. The quicker you get them checked out, the better their chances are of pulling through.
Diagnosing parvovirus in dogs
Diagnosing canine parvovirus will typically involve assessing your dog's medical history, a physical examination, and conducting laboratory tests.
Medical history and physical examination
Your vet will ask about your dog's health history, including their vaccination status, and the symptoms you've observed. A thorough physical examination will follow to check for signs such as fever or abdominal pain.
Faecal testing for parvovirus, also known as a faecal ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay) test, is a common method to detect the presence of parvovirus in your dog's faeces.
A small sample of your dog's faeces is collected, typically at your local vet practice, although sometimes you might be asked to bring a sample from home. This sample is then mixed with a special solution.The mixture is placed on a test device, and within 10 to 15 minutes, the test indicates whether parvovirus is present.
While the faecal test is quick and easy, it's not foolproof. There can be small numbers of false negatives (the test shows negative, but your dog actually does have parvovirus) and false positives (the test shows positive, but your dog doesn't actually have parvovirus) so it's often used in conjunction with other tests.
Blood tests for parvovirus
Blood tests provide valuable insights into your dog's overall health.
Complete Blood Count (CBC)
A CBC reveals information about the various cells in your dog's blood. In the case of parvovirus infection, a reduction in white blood cells, particularly neutrophils, which fight infection, is expected.
This test evaluates the functioning of your dog's organs, like the kidneys and liver. It also helps in identifying other potential health issues. Dogs with severe parvovirus may exhibit abnormal results due to dehydration caused by extensive vomiting and diarrhoea.
A Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, performed on a blood sample, detects parvovirus DNA in your dog’s body. This test, akin to the ones used during the Covid pandemic for humans, is highly precise.
A vet's view
The puppy was only seven weeks old, and absolutely tiny. Weak and dehydrated, it mewed constantly at me as I assessed it. With acute, profuse vomiting and diarrhoea in such as young puppy who hadn’t yet had its vaccinations, I was already suspecting parvovirus, which means we had to act quickly. I took a small sample and tested for this common virus, which was positive.
The puppy was very dehydrated, cold and unable to take in nutrients as fast as it was losing them. The veterinary nurses set up a cosy kennel for our small patient, in our isolation area far away from other pets as parvovirus is highly contagious. Each time I assessed the puppy, I had to wear shoe covers, gloves, gowns and mask, and use a completely separate set of equipment.
The puppy needed round-the-clock care. Intravenous fluids were used to correct the dehydration and support organ function, and medications including antibiotics and anti-sickness drugs were given to control the symptoms. The patient was placed on an intensive feeding schedule designed to support the gastrointestinal tract and provide enough nutrients without overload.
The puppy’s heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature and hydration status were checked hourly. Parvovirus can be rapidly fatal, especially in such a young patient. Thankfully, this particular small pup fought hard and went home after six days in the veterinary hospital for ongoing TLC at home.
The treatment of parvovirus focuses on managing symptoms since there isn't a specific medicine to cure it. This way, it helps your dog's body in battling the virus itself.
Parvovirus can cause severe dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhoea. Your dog will likely receive fluids to rehydrate them, support organ function and maintain a stable blood pressure.
Medication may also be given to manage vomiting and diarrhoea, along with pain relief. Antibiotics are commonly given, as there is a high risk of bacteria entering the bloodstream due to the virus.
Though your dog may not feel like eating, it's important for them to retain basic nutrition. The vet will provide a specially formulated, easily digestible diet, although in severe cases, they might need to be fed through a tube.
Your dog is likely to need overnight care. The vet will closely monitor them, conducting regular checks and possibly additional blood tests to assess the treatment's effectiveness.
Because parvovirus is so contagious, your dog will be kept away from others.
The best way to keep your puppy safe from parvovirus is by getting them vaccinated. Puppies should have their first parvovirus vaccine when they’re about six to eight weeks old, with booster shots every three to four weeks until they are 16 weeks. After this, they’ll get a booster when they’re aged one, then another every one to three years after that. Our preventative healthcare subscription service, Pet Health Club, includes parvovirus vaccination as part of the benefits.
Avoid high-risk areas
Until full vaccination, it's wise to steer clear of high-risk areas where unvaccinated dogs may have roamed, like parks, pubs, and shops.
Good hygiene practices
Maintaining cleanliness and regular disinfection can reduce the likelihood of your dog contracting parvovirus, which is notoriously tough to eliminate.
Isolating infected dogs
If your dog catches parvovirus, it's important you keep them away from other dogs to prevent the virus from spreading, and use different equipment such as food bowls and bedding for them. Thorough cleaning and disinfection of any areas your dog has been in are also essential.
Regular health checks
Routine vet visits help ensure vaccinations are current and provide a chance to discuss any concerns or queries about parvovirus.
How does the parvovirus vaccine work?
The vaccine contains antigens, which your dog’s body identifies as dangerous attackers. These antigens are either dead or incredibly weak, so they won't make your dog sick, but train the immune system in how best to fight this virus.
The vaccination stimulates your dog's immune system to begin producing antibodies to combat the virus, familiarising itself with the virus to fight it effectively. The immune system will also create memory cells to remember the virus, enabling a quicker response if exposed again in the future.
Building this defence system takes time, hence the need for multiple vaccine rounds to ensure robust protection for your puppy. Immunity can wane, though. That’s why they need booster shots throughout their lives. How often depends on factors like the vaccine type, your dog's health, and their exposure risk to the virus.
Have there been any studies into parvovirus in dogs?
Some studies have delved into the long-term impacts of canine parvovirus, particularly focusing on gastrointestinal issues that might arise post-infection. Here’s a breakdown of one study’s findings:
Dogs that came into the hospital with a low body temperature were more likely to have ongoing stomach issues. In fact, if a dog was cold (hypothermic), they were about 17 times more likely to have these problems later compared to dogs that were hot (hyperthermic).
Low neutrophil count
When they were admitted, dogs with fewer neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) also had a higher chance of having stomach issues later. This low count is a sign that the dog has a severe case of parvovirus.
Total white blood cell count
Interestingly, a higher total white blood cell count also correlated with a higher chance of later GI issues, although the study could not elucidate the reason behind this.
Other factors like whether the dog is a purebred, its medical history, and the duration since the onset of illness also mattered, though their influence was less definitive when other factors were accounted for.
It's crucial to monitor your dog, especially post-parvovirus infection, particularly if they had exhibited a low body temperature or neutrophil count during their illness.
How long are dogs or puppies with parvovirus contagious?
If your puppy catches parvovirus, they’ll start spreading it within about four to five days, even before they display signs of being sick. They'll keep spreading the virus as long as they're ill and for about 10 days after they get better.
That means a puppy with this virus can make other dogs sick for several weeks.
Caring for a dog recovering from parvovirus
Caring for a dog recovering from parvovirus requires patience, dedication, and close monitoring. There are some key steps to ensure a smooth recovery.
Follow your vet's advice
Your vet will let you know what your dog needs, including what medicine to give them, what food is best, and how much exercise they can handle.
Hydration and nutrition
Keeping your dog hydrated is a must, especially if they've been throwing up or have had diarrhoea. Ensure there's always fresh water around, and try to get your dog to drink. Your vet might give you a special diet plan to help your dog get their strength back.
Rest and comfort
Rest is important. Make a cosy spot where your dog can relax and get better. Keep the running around and jumping to a minimum until your vet says it's okay.
Even after they start feeling better, your dog can still make other dogs sick for several days, so be cautious.
Monitor for complications
Keep an eye out for strange symptoms, like if they are sick, seem really tired, or don't want to eat. If that happens, call your vet straight away.
Cleaning and disinfection
Because parvovirus is so tough, you'll need to clean everywhere your dog's been. That way, you can stop the virus from spreading or coming back.
Your vet will probably want to see your dog a few more times to make sure they're getting better and might give them some more jabs.
The chances of a dog surviving parvovirus depends on how old they are, how healthy they are to start with, the strain of parvovirus they've caught, and how quickly they get veterinary help.
But if you get your dog to the vet within 72 hours of spotting symptoms and they get the right treatment, the odds of survival are between 70% and 90%. If a dog doesn't get any treatment, it's a different story. Most dogs won't survive because the virus can make them really dehydrated, badly damage their digestive system, and lead to sepsis and organ failure.
Even if your dog gets better, they might still have some health problems as they age, like a weaker immune system or stomach troubles. That's why it's important to keep seeing your vet to make sure your dog is doing well.
When to contact your vet
This virus is fast-acting, so the sooner your dog gets help, the better their survival chances are.
Young dogs and those who haven't had their vaccinations are more likely to get sick from parvovirus. So, if you've got a young or unvaccinated dog who's not feeling well, or you know they've been near another dog with parvovirus, speak to your vet, even if they seem okay.
Cost of treating parvovirus
The cost of treating parvovirus in dogs in the UK all depends on how bad your dog’s illness is and how much treatment they’ll need to get better. On the low end, you might be looking at a few hundred pounds, but it could go up to several thousand in severe cases, which may need to be hospitalised for some time.
How long should I wait to get a puppy after losing a dog to parvovirus?
Losing a dog to parvovirus is heartbreaking, and the last thing you want is for a new puppy to catch it, too. Parvovirus can survive in your home and garden for a year or more.
Most vets say you should wait at least a month before getting a new puppy, but some might say to wait up to six months or a year. It really depends on your situation.
While you're waiting, you've got to clean everywhere your last dog went. We're talking floors, sofas, beds, toys, food and water bowls, and even the garden. Normal cleaning stuff won't work; you'll need something that's made to kill parvovirus, like a bleach solution.
Before you bring a new puppy into your home, make sure they've had their first jabs to give them a chance against catching the virus.
How to disinfect after parvovirus
Getting rid of parvovirus from your home is a significant task, but it's crucial to ensure the safety of your pets.
Start by cleaning all areas your dog has accessed. This includes floors, sofas, beds, toys, and their food and water bowls (although it might be wiser to dispose of some items and replace them with new ones). The garden needs attention, too — remove any faeces or vomit, as they can shield the virus from cleaning products.
Regular cleaning sprays are unlikely to be enough. You’ll need a solution designed to eradicate parvovirus. A concoction of one part bleach to 30 parts water is usually effective. Be cautious, as bleach can discolour items and degrade certain materials.
Apply your bleach solution to all the areas your dog has been in. Let it sit for about 10 minutes before rinsing or wiping it off. The bleach solution works on solid surfaces like concrete, but avoid using it on plants and grass as it will cause damage.
You might need to repeat the cleaning process several times over a couple of weeks to eliminate the virus completely. Before introducing a new dog or puppy, make sure they’ve received their parvovirus vaccination. It's the most effective measure to keep them protected.
Can humans contract parvovirus?
No, humans can't catch the parvovirus from dogs. The strain affecting dogs differs from the human version, known as parvovirus B19. The canine variant doesn’t transmit from animals to humans, so there's no risk of catching it from your dog.
Can cats contract parvovirus from dogs?
Cats are not susceptible to the dog strain of parvovirus. However, they have their own variant to contend with, known as feline panleukopenia virus, or FPV for short. It's sometimes referred to as feline parvovirus due to similarities with the canine version. However, these viruses are species-specific — dogs can’t catch the cat version and vice versa.
Can a dog contract parvovirus twice?
It's very rare for a dog to contract parvovirus more than once. Post-recovery, their immune system generally provides lifelong protection. However, exceptions do exist. On rare occasions, a dog’s immune system might not build strong enough immunity, making re-infection possible. That’s why it's vital to adhere to the vaccination schedule your vet recommends, even if your dog has recovered from parvovirus before.
Want more info on parvovirus in dogs?
For expert advice and treatment for canine parvovirus, contact your local vet.