Parvovirus: A serious disease that needs intensive treatment

Parvovirus is a potentially deadly viral infection that afflicts dogs, and treatment requires intensive care, writes veterinarian Karen Dye. The animal must be isolated because the virus is highly contagious, and care involves delivering intravenous fluids, monitoring and adjusting electrolyte levels, and treating secondary infections, writes Dr. Dye. An appropriate vaccination protocol is the best way to prevent parvovirus, she notes. Cats cannot contract parvovirus from dogs, but they do acquire a similar virus, panleukopenia, that can be deadly and must be treated by a veterinarian. The Culpeper Star-Exponent (Va.)

Q:   My puppy was diagnosed with parvovirus.  Can I treat him from home?

A: Ideally, puppies with parvovirus should be treated as inpatients in the hospital.  Parvovirus infection is an acute systemic disease that requires prompt, intensive supportive care in the hospital to be most successful with treatment.

Signs include sudden onset of lethargy, bloody diarrhea, anorexia and vomiting.  Some puppies may collapse and die without any signs.  Dogs that are from kennels, animal shelters and pet stores are at greater risk.  Also puppies that are younger than four months of age are at higher risk of severe infection.   Concurrent diseases such as intestinal parasites or other viruses such as coronavirus may exacerbate the illness.  Crowding and poor sanitation increases risk of infection as well.

Virus can be detected in the stool at the onset of disease and for 2-4 days afterward with in-house laboratory testing.  Lymphopenia is very common (low lymphocyte counts) and leukocytosis is common during recovery (increased White Blood Cell count).

Treatment is aimed at supportive, symptomatic care.  Controlling vomiting is of essence.  Correcting dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities are important as well.  This is best done in the hospital with intravenous balanced fluid therapy.  We are able to monitor patients’ response if they are hospitalized.  These patients do need to be hospitalized in isolation due to the highly contagious nature of the virus.  Thorough disinfection is needed with a bleach solution to destroy canine parvovirus shed into the environment.  Food and water is withheld until vomiting is controlled; once puppies are recovering, they should be fed a highly digestible, low fat diet.   Possible complications include secondary bacterial pneumonia, intussusception (prolapse of one portion of the intestine into the lumen of an adjoining segment of intestine), and septicemia (systemic bacterial infection).  This is another reason to keep puppies being treated for parvovirus in the hospital.

It is important to vaccinate appropriately for canine parvovirus.  Puppies that are vaccinated with reputable vaccines at the appropriate age intervals should be protected from parvovirus.   75% of puppies vaccinated with efficacious products will have developed immunity at 12 weeks of age.  Vaccination is not an effective control method in contaminated environments.

Q:   Can my puppy transmit parvovirus to my cat?

A:   No, canine parvovirus is specific to dogs, but there is a similar, related virus in cats.  This virus is called feline panleukopenia virus and causes similar symptoms in cats as parvovirus does in dogs.

Kittens between 8 weeks and 6 months of age are most susceptible to develop severe disease.  Adult cats often have mild or subclinical infection.  Exposure to this virus (like parvovirus in dogs) is more common in a shelter or cattery.  The onset of disease is sudden and includes symptoms similar to parvovirus in dogs (vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia and lethargy).  Dehydration occurs rapidly and may be severe.  Kittens may be infected in utero or neonatally can develop cerebellar hypoplasia (stunted development of the cerebellum portion of the brain).  This causes a drunken-like walk and incoordination.

The main principles of treatment are rehydration with electrolyte balancing via intensive intravenous fluid therapy in the hospital.  Sometimes, whole blood transfusions are required if plasma protein or total White Blood Cell Counts decrease enough.  The virus remains infectious in the environment for years unless the premises can be adequately disinfected with bleach solution.

Patients should be monitored for hydration status, electrolyte balance and Complete Blood Cell Counts.  Most cases are acute and last only 5-7 days.  If death does not occur during this time, recovery is usually rapid and uncomplicated.  Concurrent upper respiratory infections may occur which makes the prognosis worse.

Dr. Dye practices companion animal medicine and surgery at Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care.  She and Dr. Watts can be reached at (540)428-1000 or through

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