Parvo in Dogs

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Parvo in dogs is a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus that can be completely prevented with vaccination. The canine parvovirus primarily affects the gastrointestinal tract of infected animals, causing severe and sometimes fatal symptoms.

Canine parvovirus, while not always fatal, results in illness that can lead to a range of side effects. Understanding the risks of canine parvovirus is essential for owners of puppies and unvaccinated dogs, as protecting your dog from the virus is vital for both good canine health and reducing the spread of infection.

Signs & Symptoms of Parvo in Dogs

Symptoms of canine parvovirus are mostly gastrointestinal, but the virus can affect other body systems. These symptoms include:

Dogs with parvovirus often have severe vomiting and diarrhea. If your dog has parvovirus, you may also notice that the diarrhea is bloody and profuse. Dogs with the virus may also have a fever, and the gastrointestinal symptoms can cause severe dehydration.

Infected dogs tend to be weak and lethargic. The sudden loss of bodily fluids can even lead to shock in some dogs, and in severe cases, the heart can be affected, which can result in sudden death.

If you suspect that your dog might have parvo, or if your dog shows any of these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately and keep your dog away from other dogs (especially puppies).

How Did My Dog Get Parvo?

Dogs contract parvovirus by coming into contact with parvo-infected feces. Parvovirus is resistant to many common soaps and disinfectants, and it can survive for months or even years in the environment.

Common causes:

  • Infected feces
  • Infected environment
  • Direct contact with an infected dog

Canine parvovirus is highly contagious. Infected dogs begin shedding (spreading) the virus in the feces within 4-5 days of initial exposure. Often, clinical signs are not yet present at this time, which makes it easier for the disease to spread to healthy dogs through direct contact with infected feces, either nasally or orally, or by contact with an infected environment. The virus can also be spread by humans, as the virus can cling to clothes, shoes, and skin.

The parvovirus occurs almost exclusively in young, unvaccinated, or under-vaccinated dogs. Puppies from vaccinated mothers retain their mother’s antibodies for the first few weeks of their lives, but as maternal antibodies decrease, their susceptibility to parvovirus increases. This is why it is crucial for your puppy to be on a vaccination schedule and kept separate from unvaccinated adult dogs.

Additional factors can increase your dog’s chance of contracting parvo:

  • Stressful situations with large numbers of other dogs, like boarding facilities, can increase your dog’s chances of infection.
  • Some evidence shows that certain breeds of dogs are more susceptible to parvovirus, like Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, American Pitbull Terriers, and English Springer Spaniels.
  • Simultaneous diseases or parasitic infections can also increase the chances of your dog getting parvovirus, as well as complicating the treatment.

Diagnosing Parvo in Dogs

Veterinarians diagnose parvo in dogs through a series of diagnostic tests. If your veterinarian suspects your dog may have parvo, he or she will most likely administer a specific fecal test to look for antigens in your dog’s feces. If the test is positive, your veterinarian will initiate quarantine protocols to protect unvaccinated dogs in the hospital.

Your veterinarian may also recommend a complete blood count to look for low numbers of white blood cells and platelets. In addition to a blood count, a serum biochemistry panel can reveal low blood protein levels, hypoglycemia, and electrolyte imbalances. While the blood work is running, your veterinarian may suggest radiographs of the abdomen to rule out other causes of your dog’s symptoms, like obstructions or foreign bodies, along with tests to diagnose any concurrent conditions.

Treating Your Dog for Parvo

Parvovirus is a potentially fatal condition, and treatment is not always successful. The prognosis and exact treatment program may vary depending on the severity of the infection, but in all cases, the infected dog must be quarantined to prevent the disease from spreading. Depending on hospital protocol, you may not be able to visit your dog in the isolation ward, as the disease can be spread on clothing and shoes.

The treatment for canine parvovirus is supportive. Most dogs receive fluids to rehydrate their bodies, and some dogs will also need plasma transfusions or even blood transfusions if there is severe anemia. Dogs with severe vomiting may require anti-vomiting medications and/or medications to decrease the production of stomach acid. If secondary infections are present, antibiotics may also be necessary.

Cases of severe parvo can lead to sepsis. Sepsis is a widespread bacterial infection, which occurs when bacteria from the gastrointestinal tract get released into the bloodstream. Sepsis is often fatal, as it can damage many organs and will require intensive therapy to treat.

The vomiting associated with parvovirus can cause complications if food or water are aspirated (breathed in). As a result, food and water are typically withheld until dogs have gone 12 to 24 four hours without vomiting. After that, veterinarians offer small amounts of water, and bland food is reintroduced slowly.

Is There a Cure for Parvo?

There is no direct cure for parvovirus. However, it can be treated with supportive care.

Is Parvo Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?

Parvovirus is highly contagious amongst dogs. Dogs diagnosed with parvo should be isolated from other animals and their environments thoroughly disinfected. A 1:20 dilution of bleach will inactivate the parvovirus after 10 minutes of contact; however, all organic material must be removed first so that the bleach reaches the virus. Talk to your veterinarian about the best way to disinfect your home. Luckily, parvovirus cannot be spread to humans or other common non-canine pets.

What Is the Cost of Treating Parvo?

Treating parvo can be expensive. Successful treatment usually requires hospitalization for several days, which can cost thousands of dollars. Additionally, you will need to pay for the medication, diagnostics, and any follow-up visits. However, recent studies show that many puppies with parvo can recover well with attentive and rigorous home care, if hospitalization is not possible.

Recovery and Management of Parvo

The prognosis for your dog will depend on the severity of the infection. Research suggests that as long as the appropriate supportive care is provided, approximately 68% to 92% of dogs with canine parvovirus will make a full recovery, typically within one week. In general, dogs that survive through the first two to four days of parvo treatment are more likely to make a full recovery. However, dogs with sepsis, parvo-related heart disease, and dogs with prolonged illnesses usually have a poor prognosis.

Most of the management and recovery period will take place in a hospital setting. Your dog will be quarantined and monitored to give her the best chance of recovering. Once your dog is stable, she will be released into your care.

Preventing Parvo

Parvovirus is a preventable disease. While in the hospital, your veterinarian and veterinary staff will follow quarantine procedures to prevent the spread of the disease to unvaccinated or immunocompromised dogs. Once your dog has recovered, be sure not to introduce unvaccinated dogs into any home environments you have not been able to thoroughly disinfect, like outdoor areas. Additionally, dogs can continue to shed parvovirus in their stool for up to 14 days after recovery, so be sure to avoid dog parks, doggie daycare, and play dates during this time.

Young puppies who have not received or completed their vaccination series require vigilance in public areas to avoid picking up diseases like parvo. Cleaning up fecal material reduces the risk of the virus lingering in the environment, and avoiding areas like dog parks where many dogs defecate can protect your puppy from the virus.

Is There a Vaccine for Parvo?

There is a vaccine for parvovirus. In fact, it is considered a core vaccine (essential for your dog’s health) by veterinarians and is required for most reputable boarding, day care, and grooming facilities. Dogs are administered the parvovirus vaccine on a schedule beginning when they are 6-8 weeks old, and then every 3-4 weeks until a minimum of 16 weeks of age (some infectious disease specialists recommend vaccinating until 20 weeks). It is critical to remember that it is the age at which your puppy is vaccinated and the spacing between the vaccines – not the total number of vaccines given – that is important in developing appropriate immunity against parvo.

At one year, dogs receive a booster, which is then repeated every three years. If you are unsure of your dog’s vaccination history, talk with your veterinarian.


Parvovirus is a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus that causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms, amongst others. Thankfully, it is an entirely preventable disease. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s vaccination history and make sure they are up to date on their parvo vaccine.

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