Canine Parvo Virus:
Prevention, Symptoms & Treatment

Parvo Virus can be deadly in puppies but most healthy adult dogs will not become infected. The Virus is found everywhere, from grass to carpet to clothing. Because of this, most adult dogs have developed antibodies even if exposure was minimal.

As you will read throughout this web site, a healthy dog has a strong immune system that enables him/her to fight many illnesses and diseases. This does not mean a healthy dog will never become ill, but it does mean the chances of becoming ill are reduced. And if a healthy dog does fall ill, he/she is more likely than an unhealthy dog of making a good recovery.

Snapshot: Parvo Virus
Here's a quick overview if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.

  • Symptoms: Dogs and puppies with Parvo exhibit a combination of signs that usually include one or more of the following: Bloody diarrhea, vomiting, depression, high temperature and dehydration. Parvo Virus can cause death within 24 hours, so it is essential to seek medical attention immediately if your dog shows any of these symptoms.
  • Causes/Infection: The virus is passed from dog to dog (a non-infected dog sniffing an infected dog) and through feces (a dog eating--ugh!--or sniffing infected stool)
  • Diagnosis: The same symptoms that are caused by Parvo Virus, such as bloody diarrhea and vomiting, can also be caused by intestinal parasites and other health issues. It is essential to take your dog to a veterinarian for a diagnosis. A test can be run using a stool sample from the sick dog to determine a Parvo Virus diagnosis. The test can be run by your vet, with results within minutes.
  • Treatment: A dog with Parvo needs to be hospitalized. Since this is a deadly infection, he/she needs to be monitored continuously and receive intravenous fluids, antibiotics and anti-nausea and anti-diarrhea medicines.

Symptoms of Parvo Virus

Dogs and puppies with Parvo Virus exhibit a combination of signs that usually include one or more of the following: Bloody diarrhea, vomiting, depression, high temperature and dehydration. Parvo Virus can cause death within 24 hours, so it is essential to seek medical attention immediately if your dog shows any of these symptoms.

Causes

An infected dog releases large amounts of the virus through his/her stool. The Parvo Virus is practically indestructible, surviving in the environment for up to five months or longer. If the ground is frozen, the virus is preserved until the ground thaws, extending the amount of time the virus is alive. It is also difficult to kill the virus with disinfectant.

Because of these factors, the Parvo Virus is everywhere, from grass to carpet to pant leg. This means that by the time a dog becomes an adult, he/she has almost certainly been exposed to it. As a result, the dog develops antibodies that help ward off infection despite the dog being exposed to the virus. Even an unvaccinated adult dog, if healthy, has some defense against contracting the disease.

It is an entirely different story with an unhealthy adult dog. A dog that is malnourished or suffering from other health issues such as intestinal parasites is at risk of contracting the Parvo Virus due to its weakened immune system. This is especially true if the dog has never been vaccinated against the virus. (You can read more information on the pros and cons of vaccinations elsewhere on this web site.)

Puppies, with their underdeveloped and fragile immune system, are at risk of dying from the infection. An adult dog or puppy has a good chance of recovering from Parvo if hospitalized immediately upon diagnosis by a veterinarian.

Diagnosis

The same symptoms that are caused by Parvo Virus, such as bloody diarrhea and vomiting, can also be caused by intestinal parasites and other health issues. It is essential to take your dog to a veterinarian for a diagnosis. A test can be run using a stool sample from the sick dog to determine a Parvo Virus diagnosis. The test can be run by your vet, with results within minutes.

The test often used for diagnosis is the ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immuno Sorbant Assay). While this test is the most accurate choice for diagnosing the Parvo Virus, it is not 100%. That's because the test may read a recently-vaccinated puppy or adult dog as being infected with Parvo. The test is reading the live virus from the vaccine. This false reading happens most often when a puppy or dog has been vaccinated within the previous 12 days.

If your vet suspects a false positive result, additional tests may be recommended. A blood sample examined under a microscope will show the white blood cell count. Parvo lowers the number of white blood cells. So if a puppy tests positive in the ELISA test but has a normal level of white blood cells, he likely does not have parvo.

Conventional Treatment

There is no medicine that cures a dog of Parvo. (This is the case with Distemper as well.) Instead, your vet will provide what's known as supportive care, using medical means to address the symptoms of the infection until the puppy or dog's natural immune defenses kick in. While many puppies and adult dogs will recover, you need to realize this can be a deadly infection.

A puppy or adult dog with Parvo Virus needs to be hospitalized. Since this is a deadly infection, he/she needs to be monitored continuously. Vomiting is a common symptom, which means the dog is unable to take medication orally and cannot keep water down, leading to dehydration. The sick dog will receive intravenous fluids to counter dehydration and antibiotics and anti-nauseous and anti-diarrhea medications will be given either as an injection or through an IV.

Alternative Treatments

Since vomiting is a common symptom, a dog with Parvo will not be able to take in Chinese herbs that would help bolster the immune system. However, once a dog or puppy is on the road to recovery, these herbs, usually in the form of small pellets, can be prescribed by a practitioner of Chinese medicine.

A holistic veterinarian will also be helpful in recommending natural drops or powders such as Missing Link to help build strength, flush the body of toxins and strengthen the immune system. To find a holistic vet near you, contact the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.

Nutritional Remedies

Once the puppy or dog is on the road to recovery, you will want to feed him/her small meals throughout the day. Feeding too much food for one meal can cause vomiting. It's a good idea to ease the dog into a return to regular dog food. For the first week or two you will want to either feed a high-quality prescription canned food recommended by your vet or, better yet, a home-cooked diet of white rice mixed with pieces of boiled chicken or turkey with the skin removed.

Prevention

Almost all veterinarians agree that a Parvo Virus vaccination is important in preventing a puppy or adult dog from contracting the infection. The disagreement comes with how often a dog needs to be vaccinated once adulthood is reached. As your dog's caregiver, it's important to educate yourself on the benefits and downsides of vaccination. (See the page on this web site about vaccinations.) You are the most qualified person to make decisions regarding your best friend's health.

A common misconception is that a puppy vaccinated against Parvo cannot become infected with the virus. This can be a deadly misassumption. A young puppy is not able to make antibodies to protect against Parvo, which is how a puppy can become infected even if vaccinated. Instead, the puppy builds up a defense after receiving a series of two (or in some cases, even three) Parvo Virus vaccinations over several months. It is important, until your puppy is a young adult and has a strong immune system, to refrain from taking him/her to dog parks, the pet store, and other public places where the pup can pick up the virus. Even when at the vet, keep your puppy on your lap or on the floor close to you. Do not let him/her go nose-to-nose with other dogs. Remember, the Parvo Virus is EVERYWHERE!

Disinfecting Inside and Out

If your dog or puppy is diagnosed with Parvo Virus, the virus can live indoors (in your house) for up to one month. At that point the virus dies and is ineffective. If a dog or puppy with parvo has been in your home, even as a visitor, you should wait a minimum of 30 days before bringing a new puppy or an adult dog with unknown vaccine history (such as a shelter or rescue dog) into your home.

Bleach is the most effective way to kill the virus on hard surfaces such as concrete or hard plastic and metal (such as dog crates). Since it does not work well on porous surfaces it is not practical or effective to use on grass. If an infected dog has been outdoors, you can water down the yard to dilute the virus, reducing but not totally eliminating its potency. It takes between five and seven months for the virus to die outside.

My Experience

Unfortunately, I have firsthand knowledge of this deadly disease. My husband Mike and I founded an animal rescue in March 2003 to save the lives of stray dogs in Jones County, Iowa. The county has no animal shelter and they were on autopilot, picking up stray dogs, holding them for seven days, then euthanizing them. While Jones County was paying to have the dogs euthanized, no effort was made to let the public know the dogs were available to be adopted.

We set up a procedure for saving these abandoned dogs and finding them homes. Unfortunately, several dogs over the past 7+ years have been diagnosed with Parvo Virus. Many of these dogs were malnourished and full of worms, which lowers their immune system.

In our third year the county picked up Sonny, a sweet-natured very thin hound mix. Sonny was held by the county for seven days at a vet clinic in Wyoming, Iowa. During that time Sonny did not eat and seemed depressed. It's unfortunate that Sonny was held at a vet clinic that had a lot more cows than dogs for patients. (The county's choice, which we had no say over.) At the end of the week, the vet neutered Sonny and vaccinated him.

We moved Sonny to one of AWF's state-licensed foster homes. By the next day (nine days after the county first picked up Sonny running in the countryside), Sonny's foster mom called me, very concerned. Sonny was vomiting and had bloody diarrhea. It was a Saturday evening and I instructed the foster mom to call one of our vets in Linn County (where they are very experienced in caring for dogs). She took Sonny in and he was diagnosed with Parvo.

Upon learning this, I was very upset with the "cow vet." A dog as obviously malnourished as Sonny should never have be subjected to major surgery as well as both a rabies and distemper/parvo vaccinations. This would have been tough on his fragile immune system even without Parvo. Since it takes seven to 10 days for symptoms to appear, Sonny obviously had been exposed to Parvo while he was on the run.

Sonny was placed on an IV and given antibiotics, anti-nausea and anti-diarrhea meds. He was very, very sick. I was afraid he wouldn't make it.

My friend, Linda Mulholland, practices Chinese medicine. I asked her if there was something she could suggest to help Sonny. Linda literally drew me a picture of a dog lying on his back and indicated with an "x" the areas I needed to massage to help unblock Sonny's "chi" or life energy. I visited Sonny on Friday during my lunch hour. He had been deathly ill for a week with nonstop bloody diarrhea. One of the girls let me take Sonny outside in the sunshine. We sat in a designated area, since Sonny was contagious. I rubbed Sonny per Linda's instructions. The poor guy was so sick, yet he found the strength to wag his tail every time I said his name.

The following morning, Saturday, I called the vet to check on Sonny. Miraculously, sweet Sonny had turned the corner. His diarrhea had stopped and he seemed a littler peppier. He continued to improve and was eventually able to return to foster care. Not long after that, he was adopted.

I believe Sonny was able to beat Parvo Virus thanks to the healing power of conventional and Chinese medicine.

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