We hope you are having a great Monday morning! We’re back discussing medical topics this time, and today, with the summer months coming, we’d like to address a disease we all know and hate- parvovirus. What is it, how do we treat it, and most importantly- how do we prevent it?
Parvovirus- the Why and How
Parvovirus is a deceptively simple organism- it’s made of a protein coat covering a single strand of DNA. Unfortunately, this small little virus can cause a lot of havoc. Parvovirus is shed in huge numbers by infected animals (through their stool) and it can live in the environment for months. Additionally, the virus can be spread on the clothes and shoes of people that have come in contact with the virus. Parvovirus is considered “ubiquitous;” it can be picked up in any environment, although it is much easier to get in an area where an infected dog has been due to the large numbers of virus. Because of this, almost every dog in the United States has been exposed to parvovirus in some amount, giving some immunity to most adult dogs. Unfortunately, puppies and adolescent dogs who have not had time to build immunity are the most likely to get the disease.
After exposure through infected feces, there is a 3-7 day incubation period before signs of illness are seen. The virus grows in rapidly dividing cells, and the first place they go to is the lymph nodes in the throat. After they have increased in numbers, they enter the bloodstream and head to more rapidly dividing cells- the bone marrow (where the pre-cursors to white blood cells are made) and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. This is when signs of illness are initially noted, in the form of vomiting and diarrhea. When the inside lining of the intestinal tract is severely damaged, the dog is less able to absorb nutrients and fluid. In addition, damaging this lining can allow bacteria which are normal flora in the gastrointestinal tract to flow into the bloodstream. Either severe lack of nutrition and dehydration or sepsis can ultimately lead to death.
Treatment is largely supportive, as there is no curative agent for parvovirus. The basic goals of treatment are to keep the puppy hydrated, increase calorie intake, and prevent sepsis- all for long enough for the puppy to mount an immune response to fight the virus on his own. This involves aggressive nursing care under hospitalization during which we give fluids and antibiotics IV, as well as other treatments depending on the severity of the illness or other concurrent diseases, such as intestinal parasites. In addition, we monitor blood work closely. Hospitalization can be as short as 24 hours in mild cases or over a week in severe cases. With aggressive care, survival rates reach approximately 80%.
Parvovirus is a horrible disease and ubiquitous in the environment. With that in mind, we know that prevention in the form of proper vaccination is key. When puppies are born, they ingest colostrum that contains antibodies from their mothers that protect them against parvovirus which wane in the second to fourth months of life. These antibodies will bind to and destroy parvovirus; unfortunately, they will also bind to and destroy the parvovirus vaccine, leaving nothing for the puppy’s immune system to respond to. Because of this, we vaccinate puppies in a series of 4 vaccines- every 3 weeks between the ages of 6 weeks and 15 weeks. Giving these vaccinations on a regular schedule is very important to allow the immune response to build optimally and give adequate protection.
Before a puppy is fully vaccinated, they can still be susceptible to parvovirus. As we discussed before, parvovirus is ubiquitous in the environment, but it is in higher numbers in areas where ill or unvaccinated dogs have been. This would include dog parks, pet stores, and any public place where dogs visit. We recommend staying away from these places with your puppy until they are fully vaccinated!
If you see any signs of vomiting or diarrhea in your puppy, please call us immediately at 256-881-2482. Early detection and treatment can mean the difference between life and death!