Understanding Parvo and the Parvovirus

Updated: May 31, 2020

Canine parvovirus is a highly contagious viral disease that can be life-threatening. I have personally lost more than 5 dogs to this sickness. The virus attacks rapidly dividing cells in a dog’s body, most severely affecting the intestinal tract. Parvovirus also attacks the white blood cells, and when young animals are infected, the virus can damage the heart muscle and cause lifelong cardiac problems. The smallest and simplest of the microscopic infectious agents called viruses, which cause disease by replicating within living cells, parvovirus consists of a single strand of DNA enclosed in a microscopic capsid, or protein coat. This protein coat, which differs from the envelope of fat that encases other viruses, helps the parvovirus survive and adapt. Parvoviruses infect birds and mammals (including humans), but until the 1960s, parvovirus did not infect domestic dogs or their wild cousins. The original canine parvovirus, later labeled CPV-1, was discovered in 1967. Eleven years later, CPV-2 emerged in the United States. It apparently mutated from feline distemper, which is the feline parvovirus. CPV-2 quickly infected dogs, wolves, coyotes, foxes, and other canines around the world. A second mutation, CPV-2a, was identified in 1979, and a third, CPV-2b, is in circulation today. Infection takes place when a susceptible host inhales or ingests the virus, which attacks the first rapidly dividing group of cells it encounters. Typically, these cells are in the lymph nodes of the throat. Soon the virus spills into the bloodstream, through which it travels to bone marrow and intestinal cells. The incubation period between exposure and the manifestation of symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea is usually three to seven days.

When it attacks bone marrow, parvo damages the immune system and destroys white blood cells. More commonly, it attacks the intestines, causing copious diarrhea and debilitating nausea, which further weakens the dog’s system. Dogs who die of parvo typically do so because fluid loss and dehydration lead to shock, and/or because intestinal bacteria invade the rest of the body and release septic toxins. Any dog that survives a parvovirus infection is believed to have lifelong immunity. Young puppies and adolescent dogs whose maternal antibodies no longer protect them but whose immune systems have not yet matured are at greatest risk of contracting parvo. Most parvo victims are less than one year old, but the disease can and does occasionally strike adults, too. Some breeds are particularly susceptible to contracting parvovirus, including Alaskan Sled Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherd Dogs, Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, and American Staffordshire Terriers. How can you tell if your puppy/dog has Parvovirus? The general symptoms of parvovirus are lethargy, severe vomiting, loss of appetite and bloody, foul-smelling diarrhea. More likely than not, when a puppy suffers from parvo, they die from dehydration. How Is Parvovirus Transmitted? Parvovirus is extremely contagious and can be transmitted by any person, animal or object that comes in contact with an infected dog's feces. Highly resistant, the virus can live in the environment for months, and may survive on inanimate objects such as food bowls, shoes, clothes, carpet and floors. It is common for an unvaccinated dog to contract parvovirus from the streets, especially in urban areas where there are many dogs. How Is Parvovirus Diagnosed? Veterinarians diagnose parvovirus on the basis of clinical signs and laboratory testing. The Enzyme Linked ImmunoSorbant Assay (ELISA) test has become a common test for parvovirus. The ELISA test kit is used to detect parvovirus in a dog’s stools, and is performed in the vet’s office in about 15 minutes. Because this test is not 100% sensitive or specific, your veterinarian may recommend additional tests and bloodwork. How Can Parvovirus Be Prevented?

You can protect your dog from this potential killer by making sure he is up-to-date with his vaccinations. Parvovirus should be considered a core vaccine for all puppies and adult dogs. It is usually recommended that puppies be vaccinated with combination vaccines that take into account the risk factors for exposure to various diseases. One common vaccine, called a “5-in-1,” protects the puppy from distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus and parainfluenza. A good pet owner will usually know if something is wrong with his/her pet: (1) does not eat or show any interest in food, even if its pure meat; (2) is not active and will not wag its tail; (3) A dogs poop says alot about its health. Always check to make sure that it is solid, not liquid and should not have blood and gel-like matter with a strong foul-smell. Especially for puppies less then 3 months of age, I would not recommend bringing them to malls or letting them walk outdoors during these early stages. These first couple of months are very critical in a puppies life and their antibodies have not fully developed yet, so be proactive especially with regards to parvo. Make sure also to bleach your dogs area, toys, and feeding bowls regularly to deactivate the virus.

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