Canine parvovirus, or parvo, is a highly contagious disease that attacks cells in a dog's intestines and keeps them from absorbing vital nutrients. The disease is particularly dangerous for puppies, who tend to have the most severe symptoms. It's essential that any family with a new puppy understands how to recognize that their puppy is ill, where to go for treatment, and how to keep the puppy from catching parvo in the first place.
Left untreated, a puppy with parvo will almost certainly die. Even with treatment, it's a dangerous illness that can contribute to auto-immune problems in later life. Puppies can also continue to infect other dogs even after they recover. The virus is sturdy and can survive for months outside the body. There are treatments, but the best way to protect a puppy from parvo is to prevent them from contracting it.
Puppies can first receive the parvo vaccine about 6 to 8 weeks after birth. They'll need a booster two weeks later and additional boosters roughly once a year, depending on the breed and health of the dog. For the first few weeks of a puppy's life, antibodies from the mother protect them against parvo. The riskiest period for a puppy is between 6 and 12 weeks old before they're fully vaccinated, but after maternal antibodies begin to wear off.
Puppies with parvo quickly become weak and lethargic. They may develop a fever, vomit, or bloody diarrhea, and the damage to their digestive system may cause them to lose weight rapidly. A puppy exhibiting any of these symptoms should see a vet as soon as possible, as most deaths from parvo happen 48-72 hours after signs first begin.
Veterinarians help dogs survive parvo by giving them treatments to combat the symptoms and strengthening their immune system to fight off the virus. A puppy with parvo may need to be hospitalized. They'll be given intravenous fluids to combat dehydration, medicine to keep them from vomiting, and antibiotics if they develop a secondary infection. If the puppy survives the first few days of the illness, they are more likely to recover.
In the hospital, dogs with parvo are treated in isolated rooms, and vets and technicians wear special single-use scrubs to avoid spreading parvo to any other dogs in the building. After the puppy recovers, they may need to be kept separate from other dogs, especially other unvaccinated puppies, until they're no longer contagious. Using the same bedding, toys, or toilet area as a dog who has recently had parvo puts other dogs at risk.
When the puppy is well enough to leave the hospital, they may still need special care and support at home, which likely means plenty of rest and skipping walks for a while. Make sure they drink regularly and eat small, bland meals throughout the day. Vets can offer specific advice on what and when to feed the puppy. Additionally, bathroom breaks may be more frequent during this recovery stage.
Puppies can get parvo from high-traffic areas like dog parks. Until they're fully vaccinated, it's safer to socialize and play with the puppy in less public environments. Obedience classes and doggy daycare facilities which require proof of vaccination should be safe, but the puppy's vet may have more specific safety recommendations.
Breeders who care about their dogs ensure the mothers are vaccinated before giving birth and vaccinate the puppies as soon as possible. They watch for signs of parvo and separate sick dogs as soon as possible. Unfortunately, some breeders aren't so responsible. Some lie to potential buyers about vaccination and keep puppies in cramped, unhygienic conditions where parvo can spread.
Be extremely wary of puppy mills or pet stores, especially ones that allow customers to handle dozens of young puppies from different breeds at the same time. It's best to get puppies from shelters or reputable breeders that are transparent about their process. Ask to see vaccination cards for the puppy and mother and to see where the litter is being kept.
Humans can't catch parvo from their puppy, but they can pass parvo from one dog to another on their hands or clothing. Be careful when interacting with strange dogs, especially if they're unvaccinated. Make sure to fully wash hands and change clothing between handling unvaccinated puppies if there's any risk of parvo transmission.
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