Parvovirus, a highly contagious and often lethal virus, affects dogs of any age, but puppies are the most susceptible. There are about 330,000 cases of canine parvovirus annually in the U.S. with a 91% mortality rate with no supportive care provided. The highest incidence of parvo occurs in kennels, pet stores, shelters, and poor-quality breeding facilities. On September 12, 2023, the FDA warned of an increased incidence of parvo. New York reported an increase in the disease in 2023. Until recently, we had no parvovirus cure.
Signs of Canine Parvovirus
Vomiting is often the first sign, with diarrhea usually appearing within 24 to 48 hours. Vomit may be clear, yellow or blood-tinged; diarrhea is often bloody, smells rotten, and may have mucus present. Learn more about recognizing problem dog poop here. A blood test confirms the diagnosis by detecting the virus.
The acute form of the disease, however, may cause sudden severe stomach pain and depression, followed by shock and sudden death before any other symptom becomes apparent. A long illness is rare; dogs typically either recover quickly, or they die.
Progression of Parvovirus Disease
The most common enteric form of parvo affects the intestines. Virus infects the tonsils first, and from there, the virus travels to the lymphatic system, which routes it to the bloodstream. Then virus travels throughout the body, ultimately infecting the crypt cells of the intestinal lining. Canine parvo attacks white blood cells and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of dogs, which can lead to GI bleeding, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, shock and sepsis.
The damaged intestines can’t absorb nutrients. Sick pups die from dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, shock, or secondary infections. Puppies often collapse and die in as little as twelve hours following the onset of symptoms. Immediate veterinary help is critical.
Supportive Care for Puppy Parvovirus
In the past, veterinarians relied upon good nursing and supportive care. It often required 3-5 days or more of hospitalization to keep the sick dog alive long enough for his immune system to suppress and clear the virus.
Traditional care includes withholding food and water for two to four days to give the digestive system a chance to rest. Fluid therapy helps counter the devastating dehydration and returns electrolyte balance to normal. The doctor administers antibiotics to fight secondary infection, along with medications to control vomiting and diarrhea. Plasma given very early after diagnosis may help prevent shock associated with the disease.
Once vomiting and diarrhea subside, dogs eat a bland food like cottage cheese and rice or veterinary prescribed diet in small amounts several times daily. After that, the normal food gets gradually reintroduced over several days. If the pup survives three to four days following the onset of vomiting and diarrhea, he has a better chance of recovery and will become immune to the enteric form of the disease. About 50% survive with aggressive supportive care.
Not everyone can afford the price tag for the days-long expensive hospitalization for the veterinarian to stabilize a sick dog. Sadly, many owners faced with a 50% survival diagnosis instead considering euthanasia vs. the thousands of dollars needed.
Cookie, an 8-week-old puppy, fully recovered thanks to an innovative new treatment. Image of Cookie/puppy in bathtub courtesy of Elanco.
New Treatment, New Hope
This past summer, I attended the American Veterinary Medical Association conference. Among many other wonderful advances, I learned about the first and only monoclonal antibody treatment now available for this dread illness.
Canine parvovirus monoclonal antibody (CPMA) is a game changer. The single-dose intravenous injection from Elanco targets parvovirus directly. With a high safety profile, and a USDA-conditional approval, dog owners now have options for their sick dogs. Rather than days-long hospitalization cost, the treatment reduces cost, speeds resolution of the diarrhea and vomiting, and helps sick puppies and dogs go home sooner. Elanco documentation states the pups as young as six weeks may receive the treatment safely.
Fix Project, a veterinary clinic in Long Beach dedicated to spay, neuter, and rescue, received some of the first CPMA treatments for their Parvo ICU unit. Sherrie Stankewitz, owner of Fix Project, said she feels emotional about this innovative treatment. Stankewitz says, “The CPMA new drug, I believe, changed our work and moving forward, we can save every single dog.”
Just like the dog’s natural antibodies, the canine parvovirus monoclonal antibody treatment (a synthetic antibody) binds to and neutralizes the canine parvovirus. That prevents the virus from entering the cells and stops disease progression cold.
If your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with parvovirus or you suspect illness, please ask your vet about the new treatment. It could not only save you expensive hospital fees but also your dog’s life—and your heartbreak. Learn more about CPMA here.
Prevent Virus Spread
Strict isolation and quarantine helps control the spread of disease. Sick dogs should remain isolated for thirty days after recovery and bathed thoroughly before contact with other dogs.
Parvo can live in the environment for at least five months, in contaminated soil for a year, and sometimes for years. Direct dog-to-dog contact that spreads distemper, for example, isn’t necessary to spread parvo. Dogs pick up parvovirus walking through a yard contaminated with infected feces, or by contact with kennels or other objects that an infected pet has contaminated. You could carry the virus to your puppy on your shoes after you’ve walked through an infective area.
The virus is resistant to most common disinfectants and household detergents. But thorough cleaning with household bleach kills the virus. Veterinarians recommend you clean with a dilution of one part bleach to thirty parts water.
Protecting puppies with vaccination reduce the risk of your puppy catching the disease. Be sure your puppy stays away from exposure to other dogs until fully protected. But if the worst happens, the Canine Parvovirus Monoclonal Antibody treatment offers hope for your pets.
Thanks to Elanco for sharing information about this significant health breakthrough for dogs.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!