A new dog or puppy brings a lot of joy and excitement, but it can also bring something no pet owner wants – canine parvovirus, or parvo. Parvo is a highly contagious virus that attacks dogs’ intestines and causes vomiting, severe diarrhea, dark or bloody feces, and life-threatening dehydration. The virus also attacks white blood cells and heart muscle and can cause lifelong cardiac problems and even heart failure. It’s the most common infectious disease among dogs in the US and is seen most often in dogs less than 6 months old; the most severe cases, and the highest likelihood of death, occur in puppies less than 12 weeks old.
Here are some of the most common questions about detecting and treating canine parvo:
- How did my dog get parvo? Most likely from contact with the feces of another infected dog. Dogs can be infectious for more than two months after they’ve been treated for parvo. The virus can be transmitted by people, animals, and inanimate objects and can live for months on food bowls, shoes, carpets and floors, and clothes. In areas with a lot of dogs, like big cities, the parvo virus can even be picked up from the street. Parvo is particularly common among shelter dogs due to their close proximity to other animals and their sometimes unknown backgrounds.
- How do I know for sure if my dog has parvo? If you notice any of the classic symptoms of parvo (vomiting, diarrhea, dark or bloody feces, lethargy, loss of appetite, and dehydration), take your dog to the vet immediately. This is even more important if your dog is unvaccinated or has been in contact with another animal that’s had parvo recently. Your vet will conduct an antigen test on your dog’s feces to detect the presence of the parvovirus. Some versions of these tests need to be sent out to labs for analysis, while others produce rapid results and can be read by your vet within 10-15 minutes. Your vet may also take a white blood cell count and do an abdominal radiograph and/or ultrasound
- How is parvovirus treated? Unfortunately there are no drugs currently available that can completely kill the parvovirus, so treatment centers around controlling the symptoms and strengthening your dog’s immune system to help his body beat it naturally. Most dogs infected with parvo will need to be treated in a veterinary hospital for the first 5-7 days, where they’ll receive antibiotics, intravenous fluids, and antiemetics (drugs to control vomiting). Your dog’s protein and electrolyte levels will be monitored and regulated to make sure his body fluids are returning to normal. After your dog goes home, he will need plenty of rest and a diet that’s easy on the stomach. It is also essential to wash all of the objects that your dog uses (dishes, toys, blankets, crates and kennels, etc.) to prevent re-infection. Regular soap WILL NOT kill the parvovirus – you need to use bleach (1/2 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water). The survival rate for dogs with parvovirus is about 70 percent; the prognosis is lower for very young puppies since their immune systems are less developed.
- What can I do to protect my dog from parvovirus? Prevention is the best cure – get your dog vaccinated! Puppies should get their first parvovirus vaccine around 6-8 weeks of age, and boosters should be given at three-week intervals until 16 weeks of age and then again at one year of age. Adult dogs also need to receive boosters once a year. You should also limit your puppy’s exposure to other dogs until he’s received his first two vaccines, and watch your dog closely if you know he has been in contact with another dog that’s recently had parvo. Always take your dog to the vet immediately at the first sign of trouble – parvo is more successfully treated the earlier it is detected, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
- How much do canine parvovirus tests cost? The cost of getting your dog tested for parvo will depend on your vet’s pricing, but generally ranges from $40-100 for an antigen test plus the cost of an office visit. Any abdominal scans or blood tests will cost you more – generally between $40-100 for a blood test and between $150-300 for an abdominal scan.
Treating your dog for parvo is expensive – upwards of $5,000 at the end of the day. Pet insurance is a good idea for any pet owner; like medical insurance for people, pet insurance can help defray the cost of unexpected illness or accidents, and some even help cover your dog’s annual physicals and shots. If you do find yourself facing a large out-of-pocket vet bill as your dog recovers from parvo, CareCredit offers financing with no interest rate (for an agreed-upon period of time) for medical costs.
- What types of canine parvovirus tests are there? Common lab tests to detect canine parvovirus include antigen tests, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, and blood count evaluations. Antigen tests can either be performed at your vet’s office, providing rapid results, or be sent out to a lab for testing. From a technical standpoint, there is a wide variety of rapid tests, including:
- Lateral flow tests
- Enzyme-linked immunosorbent (ELISA) tests
- Agglutination tests
Each type of test (rapid tests, PCR tests, and blood counts) provides slightly different information and comes with its own pros and cons. In-office tests, such as the SafePath® ZippTest® Canine Parvovirus Test Kit, are generally quite effective at detecting parvovirus; however, these tests can sometimes produce false results. If a dog has recently been vaccinated against parvovirus, he may present a false positive; false negatives can occur in the later stages of the disease when the virus is no longer being shed through the dog’s feces. Often, vets will use a combination of testing methods and physical evaluation to get a clear diagnosis.
Canine parvovirus is a scary thing for any dog owner, but knowledge is your best defense. Keep your dog up-to-date on all vaccinations, know the signs and symptoms of parvo infection, and ask your dog-owning friends and family to do the same. These steps can help ensure you and your pooch have many happy, healthy years together!
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “Canine Parvovirus Type 2c FAQ.” Available at https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Canine-Parvovirus-FAQs.aspx.
Baker Institute for Animal Health. 2014. “Animal Health Article: Canine Parvovirus.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Available at http://www.vet.cornell.edu/baker/about/articles/CanineParvovirus.cfm.