Parvovirus in Dogs: What is it and what can you do to help?

Parvovirus in Dogs: What is it and what can you do to help?

If there’s one word bound to instill fear into the hearts of all puppy owners, it’s parvovirus. This common and dangerous virus is one of the leading causes of deaths in puppies all over the world. But what is parvovirus? How is parvovirus transmitted? Is there any treatment? We’ll have a look at all of these questions, and a few more!

What is canine parvovirus? Is there parvovirus in the UK?

Canine parvovirus is an extremely contagious virus of dogs that causes damage to rapidly dividing cells. In puppies it targets the cells of the guts, causing severe illness that is commonly, and rapidly, fatal. Parvovirus exists worldwide, and is present throughout the UK.

Who is at risk of getting parvovirus?

Vaccination against parvovirus is highly effective, which means parvovirus is mostly seen in unvaccinated puppies or dogs who haven’t been vaccinated for another reason. It’s thought to be worse in males, and dogs with black and tan colouring, although we aren’t yet sure why!

How do dogs get parvovirus?

Dogs get parvovirus by eating invisible viral particles. These have been passed in the stool of affected dogs, who ‘shed’ the virus for days before they show illness and, if they survive, for weeks after the illness resolves, meaning you can’t tell by looking whether a dog is infective to your dog. In addition, the virus lasts a very long time in the environment – months, and possibly even years, in soil. The scary thing about parvovirus is that your puppy can be strolling along and lick some grass that had parvovirus poo on it several months ago – and that’s enough to be fatal to your pup.

What are the symptoms of parvovirus?

Puppies and adult dogs with parvovirus usually show signs of gut disturbance, such as vomiting and diarrhoea. They are usually extremely lethargic and weak. In puppies, these signs should be considered as ‘parvovirus until proven otherwise’ as every minute counts when fighting the disease.

Diagnosing parvovirus

In the UK, the most common diagnostic test for parvovirus is to run a quick test on a stool sample. A little like a pregnancy test, this test will show a positive line within minutes if parvovirus is present. Blood tests are also useful, as they help your vet determine the amount of dehydration. Your dog’s white blood cell count is likely to be extremely low, which gives rise to parvo’s other name – ‘panleukopenia’.

How to treat parvovirus

Without treatment, 90% of dogs infected with parvovirus will not survive. There is no specific treatment for parvovirus, but your vet can offer supportive care. This includes a fluid drip to correct dehydration, antibiotics, and anti-emetics. Your dog will have to remain hospitalised for several days in an isolation ward. Intensive care may be necessary, which can be expensive. With treatment, survival estimates are 50-85%, depending on how severe the dog was at presentation. Because of the poor prognosis, some pet parents opt for euthanasia at diagnosis.

I think my puppy has parvovirus – what should I do?
  • Isolate your pets.
    The first thing you should do is isolate the puppy from any other dogs in the house, to make sure they aren’t a risk to them. Disinfecting a room like a bathroom for your other dogs to stay in until you’ve got a confirmed diagnosis is a good idea. If your dogs are booked into daycare or with a dog walker or groomer, you should cancel their appointments until you know whether it’s safe.
  • Call your vet.
    Once your other dogs are safe, it’s time to call the vet. Make sure you tell them your dog may have parvovirus, as this will enable them to protect other dogs in the clinic by isolating you and your dog on arrival. They’ll need a same-day appointment, as time is of the essence, so if your usual vet can’t fit you in, you should ask if they can recommend elsewhere.  You’ll need to take your dog’s vaccination records with you, if you have them, so take a moment to collect these. If you’ve only just got your puppy, taking the breeder records along may be helpful.
  • Get your puppy examined and tested.
    The next step is to attend your appointment and explain your concerns to your vet. They’ll want to examine your dog and run some tests to confirm your suspicions. Hopefully, your dog has an upset stomach for another reason, but these tests will enable your vet to say for sure. Whilst you’re there, make sure you explain your dog’s vaccination history, and ask about your other dogs at home.
  • Decide on treatment
    If your puppy has parvovirus, your vet will go through his treatment options with you, as well as give you estimated costs and a prognosis. Feel free to ask your vet any questions you need to to make sure you understand exactly what is going on.

My dog had parvovirus, can I get a new puppy?

If you have a dog who has survived parvovirus or who unfortunately passed away, you might be wondering how soon you can get a new puppy.

Unfortunately, parvovirus is extremely stable in the environment, lasting months on many surfaces. This means that you’ll have to disinfect to remove all traces of the virus from your home before allowing a new puppy into the house. Since it’s all but impossible to disinfect soil in the garden, you may need to make sure your puppy doesn’t go into the garden until they’re completely vaccinated at a year old.

Adopting an older dog might be a good option for you, instead. Another option would be to request the breeder keeps your puppy until he has completed a course of at least two parvovirus vaccinations older than 10 weeks of age. Even then, it’s not guaranteed that he’ll be protected, and you should take every effort to ensure you disinfect anywhere you can where your previous dog had been.

How to disinfect your house after parvovirus

Parvovirus can survive on almost any surface, so the first step is to get rid of soiled dog beds, toys, leads, and other items that will be difficult to disinfect.

Next, you’ll need to clean. Mud, poo, and other organic materials can stop disinfectants from working, so washing is the first step in disinfection. Put anything that can go through the washing machine on a hot, soapy cycle, and dry them thoroughly. Wash the floors with floor cleaner. Spray down solid outdoor surfaces to remove any faeces. Even surviving dogs should be washed with shampoo, rinsed, and allowed to dry.

Now it’s time to disinfect. Anything that went through the wash will need to go through a diluted bleach cycle, too – if they’re not bleach-safe, consider a carpet disinfectant or simply discarding the item.

For hard surfaces, such as floors, worktops, patios, and paving, find a dog-safe disinfectant that has been proven to kill parvovirus. Take care to follow all instructions on the product, as some products may stain or bleach, and pay attention to the contact time (the amount of time the product must be left on) and any rinsing requirements. You’ll also want to soak all bowls and hard toys in disinfectant for the required contact time.

For your garden, dilute any organic material as much as possible with water, then allow to dry. Some disinfectants work better with organic materials than others – look for label claims to see whether this is the case.

When can I get a new dog?

Unfortunately, even with the best disinfectant there’s no guarantee when your home will be safe again, as it’s possible to miss areas. The best defence is to make sure that your next dog is fully vaccinated before they enter the house – and that goes for any pets belonging to friends and family, too.

Hopefully, parvovirus will never strike. Practicing good hygiene with new puppies and ensuring their vaccinations are started as soon as possible is the best way to ensure your dog remains safe.  

This article was written by Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS, a registered veterinarian working in the UK.