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What puppy owners should know about Parvo

The essentials

  • Parvo infects the stomach and small intestines — Although the parvovirus usually attacks the small intestine, it can also affect the bone marrow, white blood cells, and the heart.
  • It’s highly contagious in dogs — Canine parvovirus spreads through direct contact with infected dogs or indirect contact with a contaminated object, including infected feces.
  • Early vaccination is critical for prevention Vaccination is essential for prevention because there’s no cure for parvo.

What is parvo?

Parvo (canine parvovirus or CPV) is a highly contagious disease, leading to gastrointestinal tract problems in puppies and unvaccinated dogs. The virus works by attacking the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration. It can also attack white blood cells and cells of the heart muscle, which can lead to a low white blood cell count, heart damage, or even death.

How parvo spreads

Curious puppies may get parvo by touching their nose or mouth to infected feces. The virus also spreads through direct contact with an infected dog and indirectly spreads through contact with contaminated environments or items, like leashes, crates, or bowls.

🚨Parvo is contagious by feces five days after exposure and up to 10 days after recovery. It’s also resistant to heat, cold, and humidity and can survive indoors for months — and for years outdoors.

The virus is incredibly difficult to eradicate.  If you suspect your puppy has parvo, it’s crucial to quarantine infected dogs immediately and begin disinfecting your environment.

Symptoms of canine parvovirus

Every dog owner should recognize the signs and symptoms of parvo — it’s part of being a responsible pet owner. The most common signs are:

  • Loss of appetite. A dog with parvo can go several days without eating, so keep an eye on any changes in appetite.
  • Lethargy. Is your dog more tired than usual? This symptom may be caused by a variety of health conditions, including parvo.
  • Vomiting. Among the chief symptoms of parvo is vomiting, which you’ll likely begin to notice first.
  • Bloody diarrhea. Diarrhea, especially bloody diarrhea, is one of the most prominent early symptoms in dogs with parvo. 
  • Dehydration. Dogs experiencing diarrhea and vomiting also become severely dehydrated. A few signs of dehydration include dry gums, dry nose, panting, loss of appetite, and skin tenting — when the skin and fur lose elasticity and stay elevated and away from the neck in a tent-like shape.
  • Weight loss. With excessive vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite, it’s no surprise that your puppy may begin to lose weight.
  • Fever. In addition to lethargy and loss of appetite, your parvo puppy will also likely experience a fever. Your vet may recommend antibiotics for this.
  • Hypothermia. Very sick puppies may experience hypothermia, an abnormally low body temperature, along with difficulty breathing — another reason why early vaccination and intervention are key to prevention.
  • Depression. The symptoms of parvo are no fun, and your dog’s mental health may be affected in the process. Be sure to give your puppy some extra comfort and love as they’re struggling.

🚨Contact your vet immediately if your pup shows any combination of these symptoms and let them know your pup may have parvo. They can take appropriate measures to prevent the spread of the infection.

Why are puppies more susceptible to parvo?

Dogs with the weakest immune systems are at the highest risk of getting parvo, including unvaccinated, immunocompromised adult and elderly dogs. However, because most dogs are vaccinated by adulthood, unvaccinated puppies are most susceptible to the virus as their immune systems are still developing — and they are most likely to be in contact with other puppies, making it quick to spread.

Puppies under four months old that aren’t yet fully vaccinated still have antibodies in their system from their mother’s milk. As the antibodies leave their system, they are at heightened risk of any infection or virus, such as parvo, that may further weaken their immune system.

How parvo works

Once your puppy is infected, it’ll take three to seven days for symptoms to appear. During this time, the virus will begin to attack your dog’s lymph nodes and tonsils before invading a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes. 

After multiplying these invasive white blood cells, the virus makes its way into the puppy’s bloodstream and heightens its attack in the bone marrow and cells lining the walls of the small intestine. Parvo may also infect the heart in very young puppies.

When the virus attacks these sites, it weakens the body’s ability to protect itself by destroying immune cells and ultimately cutting down the number of healthy white blood cells, opening up opportunities to invade the site where it does the worst damage: the gastrointestinal tract.

During its attack on the intestines, parvovirus makes it difficult to replace the old and dying cells with healthy, fresh new ones , making it harder for the intestines to adequately absorb nutrients and function the way they normally do to prevent illness. Symptoms like nausea and diarrhea will appear as a result, and parvovirus will continue to weaken the body’s immune system as it spreads.

Though parvo is not always fatal, when it is, death is usually a result of severe dehydration and shock, plus the release of toxins in the bloodstream.

Dog breeds at increased risk for parvo

Certain breeds may be more susceptible to canine parvovirus, though the reasons for this currently remain unknown. Breeds at heightened risk of contracting the disease include, among others:

Treating parvo in puppies

Most puppies that survive the first few days after the onset of symptoms make a complete recovery, and recovery typically takes a week depending on the severity of the case. 

During your initial veterinarian appointment, your vet will run what’s called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test to search for any signs of the virus in your dog’s feces. They may also conduct other diagnostic tests to confirm results or rule out other conditions.

Note that there is no cure for a canine parvovirus infection, but your vet will offer treatments for parvo symptoms, such as dehydration, diarrhea, and vomiting, and ensure your puppy is consuming a healthy, balanced diet to aid in recovery. Antibiotics may also be administered to help fight common secondary bacterial infections known to further weaken your pet’s already weakening immune system. 

In severe cases, parvo can indeed be fatal. These deaths usually occur in the first 48-72 hours after signs appear.

How to prevent canine parvovirus

The number one tool for preventing parvo in puppies is vaccination, but you can also talk to your vet about taking additional precautions like adopting a healthier diet or changing puppy socialization habits.

  • Vaccination — Puppies receive a total of three canine parvovirus vaccinations at three-to-four-week intervals, first at six to eight weeks old, then another shot between 10 to 12 weeks of age. The last vaccine is administered between 14 and 16 weeks.
  • Good nutrition — Since there’s no cure for parvo, puppies will need a strong immune system to help fight the virus and recover from treatment. Ultimately, the best thing you can do in addition to vaccination is to feed your puppy a balanced diet, which means a good blend of protein, fat, carbs, and minerals.
  • Caution while socializing — Puppies can get the disease from dog parks, grooming facilities, pet stores, and more. Socialize them in a less public area and limit their contact with other dogs. Check that kennels, daycares, and training classes require vaccination records and health examinations. You are safe socializing unvaccinated puppies with vaccinated dogs in secure environments. 

It’s completely understandable if you’re anxious about your puppy contracting parvo. But with the appropriate vaccines and preventative care, canine parvovirus can be avoided entirely. 

If your puppy does catch it, the virus has a survival rate of 68% to 92% with early treatment — and most puppies that survive those first three to four few days after symptoms appear to go on to make a complete recovery.

Frequently asked questions

What are the first signs of parvo in a puppy?

Look out for early signs of canine parvovirus infection, like a fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

Can puppies survive parvo?

Yes. Parvo has a survival rate of 68% to 92% with early treatment and most puppies that survive the first three to four days after symptoms appear go on to make a full recovery.

Can you get rid of parvo in a puppy?

There is no cure for parvo, but your vet may offer supportive treatment and care to fight secondary infections and calm symptoms. Most puppies that survive the first few days following the onset of symptoms make a complete recovery within a week, depending on the severity of their case.

Can humans get parvo from puppies?

No, humans cannot catch parvovirus from their dogs.

How long does parvo last in a puppy?

Parvo is contagious for up to 10 days after recovery and can survive indoors for at least one month. Outside, parvo may be contagious for up to a year.