Canine Parvovirus

Canine parvovirus is a highly contagious disease, usually preventable through vaccination, and can be fatal.

It attacks the gastrointestinal tract of dogs, especially puppies. The animals contract the virus from particles shed in the feces of affected canines.

"The virus is very resistant to heat, chemicals and drying, meaning that the virus is tracked everywhere," says Dr. Mike Willard, a veterinarian at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University.

"Essentially all dogs get exposed sooner or later," so prevention is vital to a dog's health, Willard says.

Vomiting, diarrhea, refusal of food and lethargy are all symptoms of canine parvovirus. "You can see all, one, some or none of these signs," Willard says, "and they vary from very mild to severe."

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, vomiting and diarrhea can cause rapid dehydration, and most deaths from parvovirus occur within 48 to 72 hours after the onset of symptoms.

The disease also can be so mild the owner is unaware the dog has contracted parvovirus. "This means that dogs with relatively minor symptoms can ultimately infect other dogs that end up having extremely severe signs," Willard says.

Regardless of the severity of the illness, parvovirus is difficult to kill, and no specific medication exists that can eradicate the virus once a pet is infected. At that point, a veterinarian can only provide supportive care. Therefore, prevention is key.

Prevention of canine parvovirus is two-fold: hygiene and vaccination. Puppies are at risk of exposure through fecal material, and settings such as pet shops, parks, obedience classes and groomers put them at risk, according to the AVMA. Be sure to keep your dog in a clean environment.

"Do not let puppies less than 12 to 14 weeks of age be exposed to lots of other dogs, directly or indirectly, until they have had two shots of parvoviral vaccine," Willard says. He advises starting a puppy's parvo vaccinations when they are 6 — 8 weeks old.