In a single week, we have seen four cases of canine parvovirus. This is a serious disease that mostly affects puppies and unvaccinated dogs. Parvo, if untreated, is often fatal. Even with treatment, survival is not assured. Because treatment for parvo is costly, we stress that prevention is the best medicine. Vaccination at a cost of just a few dollars can prevent a disease that costs $500-$2,000 to treat, and will save your puppy a lot of suffering.

Canine parvovirus was first recognized in 1978. It is a virus that can last a very long time in the environment. Puppies get infected from walking, playing or rooting and ingesting the virus particles from contaminated soil. Vaccinated dogs still get infected and shed the virus, but they do not develop symptoms. Because so many dogs can be carriers, we cannot control the presence of the virus in the environment.

When a puppy gets infected, the virus spreads through the blood and attacks the cells of the gut and the immune system. By killing these cells, the virus causes destruction of the natural barrier to infection in the gut. The gut has bacteria living on the surface that normally do not cause disease. When the barrier is compromised, however, those bacteria can enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc. To add insult to injury, parvo destroys the immune cells that would fight these bacterial infections. Finally, because the gut wall is compromised, the poor puppy cannot absorb nutrients and water. He or she will often bleed into the gut, risking catastrophic blood loss. Most parvo puppies are also infected with parasites, which can make matters even worse.

The signs of parvovirus infection are vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dehydration and extreme lethargy. Sometimes there is a fever. These signs come on rapidly. A puppy can be playful in the morning and very sick by the evening.

If this disease were happening to you, you would be placed in an isolation ward in intensive care, with intravenous (IV) fluids, antibiotics, and nutrition. Your blood values would be closely monitored to make sure that you were not developing sepsis (infection in the blood) and to ensure all of your organ systems were as healthy as possible. You would probably be hospitalized for five days or more, and even then you may not recover.

For puppies, the best treatment is IV fluids, injectable and oral antibiotics, anti-nausea medication, and special foods. Treatment may be needed for several days.

Vaccination for parvovirus is one of the most important things you can do for a new puppy. The same shot also includes vaccines for distemper and hepatitis, which are rare diseases but just as serious. It is important that all puppies get the whole series in two-to-three-week intervals until 16 weeks; otherwise they may not be protected. Some breeds, like Rottweilers, need another shot after 16 weeks. Once a dog has had his or her booster at 1 year of age, the vaccine provides at least three years of protection each time. If we never saw another case of this sad disease, we would be very happy veterinarians!

John Duncan, DVM is a veterinarian at the Apalachicola Bay Animal Clinic in Eastpoint.