Health & Wellness
Parvovirus, or parvo for short, is a contagious virus that can make dogs and puppies very sick. Dogs who are infected with parvo develop bloody diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy and weakness. Without treatment, and sometimes even with treatment, parvo infection can be fatal.
Fetch Veterinary Advisory Board member and emergency veterinarian Dr. Noe Galvan DVM, MPH, shares his experience with parvo in dogs as Head of Emergency and Overnight Medical Director at VCA Oso Creek Animal Hospital and Emergency Center. He states, “working in the ER for several years, I have had my share of success stories, which often seemed nothing short of miraculous.”
Previously, the only treatment option for dogs was to keep them in the hospital on IV fluids, antibiotics, and other medication to help support them and prevent complications while the body fights off the virus. While most dogs who got the full treatment would recover, not all would. In some cases, aggressive treatment is not an option due to cost.
Dr. Galvan shares a parvo success story:
“When I lived in Houston, I remember it was a busy evening at the ER and I got a notification that there was a small Chihuahua in room 2 who ‘didn’t look too great’. After discussing the history with my nurse, I immediately knew a 2-pound puppy with vomiting and bloody diarrhea screamed parvo. Sure enough, the SNAP test turned that dot blue almost instantly. We had parvo. The owners had financial limitations and elected minimal outpatient treatments. They had agreed to bring the puppy every evening for subcutaneous fluids and an injection of Cerenia. They were so dedicated to do everything they could for their new puppy. After about a week of fluids, antiemetics [anti-vomiting medication], and antibiotics, the puppy finally started to feel better and even playful. I was shocked. I genuinely believed that puppy would not make it given her small size, severe clinical signs, and inability to afford hospitalization.”
Because this infection is so dangerous and the vaccine is so effective, the parvo vaccine is one of three core vaccines for dogs, meaning that it is recommended for all dogs, regardless of their lifestyle. It is usually started around 6 weeks of age and boosted every 3 to 4 weeks until at least 16 weeks of age. After that, it is repeated every 1 to 3 years, depending on your dog’s previous vaccine history and the vaccine used. According to Dr. Galvan, pet parents should keep in mind that, “Parvovirus is not just a virus for puppies; this virus can infect dogs of all ages who are not vaccinated.”
Most dogs who are fully vaccinated against parvo will not get sick if they are exposed to the virus. According to Dr. Galvan, what matters in the body’s fight against parvo is “immunity, and if the body has had a chance to create protective antibodies from vaccines to fight off this virus.”
Dr. Galvan recommends that unvaccinated puppies should not be allowed to commingle with other animals or visit high pet traffic areas. Dogs with parvo feel awful because, according to Dr. Galvan, the virus causes, “pain, discomfort, severe nausea and dehydration, among other things. We just want to make sure these pets are comfortable, whether as patients in the hospital, or even if they go home for outpatient care.”
Just recently, a new treatment option has become available. It is a monoclonal antibody (a version of what the immune system would make after being exposed to the infection) against the parvovirus that can be given by injection to sick dogs. This speeds up the immune response against the virus and helps to kill it faster. Since dogs who have the infection often have a weakened immune system, they sometimes take too long to make their own antibodies. For this reason, the new treatment may help some dogs survive who otherwise would not. Additionally, if this treatment is started early in the course of the disease, a dog may not need to be hospitalized for as long (or at all), reducing the cost of treatment significantly.
Parvo can wreak havoc on a dog’s life, but it doesn’t have to. This new treatment option, however, does not replace the need to vaccinate your dog for parvo. It’s still easier, safer and less expensive to prevent the disease than to treat it. But the good news is still good news: there’s another way to help more dogs who are infected to recover, and return home to their loving pet parents, parvo-free.
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