Parvo is a particularly nasty viral disease that affects young dogs or dogs that have never been exposed to the virus or been given a vaccine. The disease was first seen in the United States back in the 1970s. Once infected, the virus is shed in large numbers by the dog. The virus itself is extremely stable in the environment and can re-infect naïve animals for over one year. Parvo is species specific so does not affect children or people in the house.
What makes this virus so bad is that it has a two- fold attack. It attacks the patient’s immune system while at the same time destroying the fast dividing cells of the GI tract. By lowering the immune system and destroying the natural lining on the intestines, the virus sets the patient up for secondary infections. Also, since the gastrointestinal tract has been destroyed, patients often develop life threatening dehydration. Parvo either kills through fluid loss and dehydration or through a secondary whole body bacterial infection as bacteria crosses the ruined intestinal barriers.
There is some good news with respect to this virus. It is COMPLETELY preventable. Puppies have maternal antibodies from their well vaccinated mothers that, in some cases, can last up to three to four months after they are born. This is why most veterinarians recommend starting vaccines at six to 8 weeks of age. Once vaccinated it takes 3 to 4 weeks for the body to recognize and produce antibodies to viruses. If vaccinated at 6-8 weeks, this puts them developing their own immunity just as the maternal antibody wears off.
However, if you choose not to vaccinate your pet and they do develop parvo things get complicated. Without treatment, the prognosis is poor. With treatment around 80% of puppies recover completely. Treatment can mean a stay of up to 7 days in hospital with aggressive care. It can include blood transfusions. Treatment is extremely expensive whereas the vaccine is not. Once treated, pets can shed parvo for up to six months after resolution of clinical signs. Therefore they can expose other pets at the dog park, in town, or visitors to your house.
Over the counter vaccines are available. However these usually do not come with guarantees and past problems with non veterinary handling have caused some to be ineffective. The vaccine at your veterinarian does not usually cost too much more and are usually backed by the company that produces them. That is, they pay for the treatment of your pet if they were correctly vaccinated and developed this terrible disease.
In my time as an emergency veterinarian I have seen several young, beautiful puppies euthanized due fiscal constraints once infected with this virus. It breaks my heart every time knowing that this was likely a completely preventable disease. Educating the public and your friends about why you should vaccinate for this disease, is one of the best ways you can prevent animal suffering.
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