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Parvovirus in Dogs

Canine parvovirus, often referred to as “parvo,” stands as one of the most severe threats to canine health, although it’s highly preventable through vaccination.

Discovered in the 1970s, this virus quickly emerged as a significant menace due to its resilience, prolonged survival in the environment, high contagion, and potential fatality, particularly without prompt treatment. Consequently, the parvo vaccine is considered essential for both puppies and adult dogs.

Despite the effectiveness of the vaccine in reducing the risk for properly immunized dogs, parvo remains prevalent, especially among young puppies and inadequately vaccinated adolescent dogs.

This article provides comprehensive insights into parvo in dogs, covering methods to safeguard your pet, recognizing parvo symptoms, and steps to take if your dog displays signs of infection.

What Is Parvovirus in Dogs and Puppies?

Parvovirus in dogs is a contagious DNA virus known for causing severe illness, particularly in young and unvaccinated dogs. Its primary impact is on rapidly dividing cells in the body, predominantly affecting the intestinal tract and bone marrow. Additionally, parvovirus can harm the heart muscle cells of very young puppies.

While it’s most prevalent among puppies and adolescent dogs, adult or senior dogs can also be affected, particularly if they lack vaccination.

Symptoms and Types

Typically, a dog infected with parvovirus will manifest symptoms within a span of three to seven days after exposure.

Initial signs in an infected puppy often include lethargy and loss of appetite, accompanied by fever. As the infection advances, the dog will experience abdominal discomfort, vomiting, and potentially severe diarrhea.

In severe cases, afflicted puppies may collapse, exhibiting elevated heart rate, breathing difficulties, and hypothermia due to dehydration and infection.


Canine parvovirus is highly contagious, spreading rapidly and efficiently. Although it’s not airborne, the virus can persist on various surfaces.

Transmission occurs through contact with contaminated feces, even if not visibly present. Parvovirus can survive on the ground, in kennels, on hands, objects, or clothing of individuals who’ve been exposed. Additionally, dogs can carry the virus on their fur or paws after contact with contaminated materials.

The virus can endure in the environment for extended periods, remaining resilient against many disinfectants. However, it is susceptible to diluted bleach and certain specialized cleaners commonly utilized in veterinary settings.

Can Humans Get Parvo?

Parvovirus is species-specific, meaning humans have their distinct version of the virus. Consequently, humans cannot contract parvovirus from dogs, nor can dogs acquire it from people.

Nonetheless, exercising caution is crucial, particularly by wearing personal protective equipment when in contact with an infected dog. While the risk of contracting parvo is absent, there’s potential for spreading the virus to another dog through contaminated hands or clothing.

Can Cats Get Parvo From Dogs?

Cats are also susceptible to a form of parvovirus called feline panleukopenia, causing severe illness. While dogs cannot contract feline parvovirus from cats, cats can potentially be infected with canine parvovirus. However, their clinical signs are usually milder compared to those in dogs, although a particular strain of canine parvovirus can lead to severe illness in cats.

The feline parvovirus vaccine, included in the core FVRCP vaccine, may provide some level of cross-protection against canine parvovirus.


In clinical settings, fecal ELISA tests (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) are the primary method for diagnosing parvovirus in dogs. This test involves obtaining a fecal swab and typically yields results within about 10 minutes.

Although the test is generally reliable, a negative result doesn’t conclusively exclude the presence of parvovirus in a symptomatic dog. This is because the dog may not be shedding the viral antigen at the time of testing. In such cases, additional testing may be necessary for accurate diagnosis.

Stages of Parvovirus in Dogs

The stages of canine parvovirus are akin to those of most viral infections.

1. Infection

The puppy (or adult dog) becomes exposed to parvo through fecal material from an infected dog. These viral particles can originate from several sources:

  1. The environment (on the ground or surfaces)
  2. The mother dog
  3. People, clothing, or objects that have been in contact with the feces of an infected dog

Even a tiny amount of fecal material is sufficient to cause infection, entering through the mouth of the puppy or dog.

2. Incubation

There exists an incubation period, typically lasting three to seven days, during which the dog harbors the parvovirus but remains asymptomatic.

During this phase, the virus targets the body’s most rapidly dividing cells, initially focusing on the tonsils or lymph nodes in the throat. By exploiting these highly proliferative cells, the virus multiplies efficiently, facilitating its spread throughout the dog’s system.

Once it proliferates and enters the bloodstream, the virus homes in on other sites with rapidly dividing cells. The most affected areas include:

  1. Bone marrow
  2. Cells lining the walls of the small intestines

In very young puppies, the virus may also affect the heart, leading to heart muscle inflammation, impaired heart function, and arrhythmias.

3. Illness

When the virus infiltrates the bone marrow, it targets immature immune cells, causing a decrease in protective white blood cells.

This compromises the body’s defense mechanisms, facilitating easier invasion of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract by the virus. The most severe damage occurs here. The virus assaults the lining of the small intestine, hindering the GI tract’s ability to:

  1. Absorb nutrients
  2. Prevent fluid loss into the stool
  3. Halt the movement of bacteria into the gut wall and subsequently into the bloodstream

This results in significant health complications, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Severe dehydration
  • Fever
  • Sepsis

While not always fatal, dogs that succumb to parvo typically perish due to dehydration or shock, exacerbated by the septic toxins released when intestinal bacteria escape into the bloodstream.

What Is the Treatment for Parvovirus in Dogs

There is no specific cure for parvovirus in dogs, so treatment primarily involves providing supportive care to aid the puppy’s immune system in fighting off the virus.

Supportive care typically includes:

  • Hospitalization with administration of intravenous fluids
  • Antiemetics to alleviate vomiting
  • Emphasis on nutrition, potentially utilizing a feeding tube if necessary
  • Correction of any electrolyte imbalances or low blood glucose levels

Puppies displaying signs of sepsis, where intestinal bacteria enter the bloodstream due to gut permeability, may require antibiotic therapy. Additionally, puppies with a high fever or low white blood cell count may receive antibiotics as well.

Recovery and Management

Recovery from parvovirus in dogs is individualized, with the duration of recuperation dependent on the severity of the illness and the extent of damage incurred. Dogs recovering from infection typically remain unwell for a period of five to 10 days following the onset of symptoms.

Ensuring puppies with parvovirus receive adequate nutrition is vital for intestinal healing. A bland, easily digestible diet is recommended for dogs in recovery. Prescription veterinary diets from Hill’s Science Diet, Purina, and Royal Canin are meticulously formulated to provide balanced nutrition and are gentle on the GI tract:

  • Hill’s Prescription Diet Digestive Care i/d dry dog food
  • Hill’s Prescription Diet Digestive Care i/d wet dog food
  • Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets EN Gastroenteric dry dog food
  • Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets EN Gastroenteric wet dog food
  • Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Low Fat dry dog food
  • Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Low Fat wet dog food

Hospital stays typically range from five to seven days, though this can vary based on symptom severity. The highest risk of fatality occurs within 24–72 hours after the onset of parvo symptoms.

With prompt veterinary attention, intensive supportive care, and close monitoring, hospitalized puppies have a survival rate of approximately 75–80%. Survival becomes more challenging if veterinary intervention is delayed after symptom onset or if the dog lacks adequate supportive care during hospitalization.

Are There Home Remedies for Parvo?

There are no home remedies for parvo in dogs. In certain cases where a dog isn’t severely ill or if expensive treatment is unfeasible, outpatient treatment may be attempted under veterinary supervision.

Outpatient treatment typically involves:

  • Subcutaneous fluids for hydration
  • Special highly digestible diet
  • Antiemetics to control vomiting
  • Antidiarrheal medications
  • Antibiotics may also be prescribed

While some dogs may recover following this protocol, hospitalization is generally safer and more likely to yield better outcomes.

How To Prevent Your Dog From Getting Parvo

The canine parvovirus vaccine is commonly administered as part of a combination vaccine known by various acronyms like DHPP, DAPP, DA2PP, DHLPP, etc. This vaccine is classified as a core vaccine and should be administered every three to four weeks starting from six to eight weeks of age until the puppy reaches 16–20 weeks.

Ensuring timely vaccination is crucial for preventing parvo. Puppies should only interact with fully vaccinated dogs until they themselves are fully vaccinated. It’s advisable to avoid areas where puppies may encounter unvaccinated dogs, such as dog parks.

A booster vaccine is necessary at 1 year of age to achieve full vaccination status. Additionally, dogs should continue to receive vaccines every one to three years throughout their life or undergo periodic monitoring of immunity using parvovirus antibody tests.

Parvo in Dogs FAQs

Can a vaccinated dog get parvo?

While no vaccine can guarantee absolute efficacy, the canine parvovirus vaccine offers exceptional protection against the virus. The likelihood of a properly vaccinated dog falling ill with canine parvovirus is very low.

It’s crucial to ensure that puppies receive the correct number of boosters according to their age, followed by additional boosters after they reach 1 year old. Subsequently, dogs should receive vaccinations every 1-3 years or undergo immunity assessments through parvovirus antibody tests.

Can a dog get parvo twice?

Immunity to parvovirus persists for several years. Although rare, the likelihood of a dog experiencing a second infection after recovering from canine parvovirus is very low.

However, this doesn’t negate the necessity of vaccinating your dog against canine parvovirus even if they have recuperated from it previously. Regular vaccinations should still be administered as part of routine care.

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