How Do Dogs Get Parvo? All You Need to Know

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  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

You may have heard of parvo, either in the news or from cautionary tales about getting your puppy vaccinated.

But how do dogs get parvo? What are the symptoms, and why is it such a big deal? A vet weighs in on what you need to know about parvo.

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Canine parvovirus, commonly known as parvo or CPV, is a life-threatening contagious intestinal disease of young puppies, though adolescent and immunocompromised adult dogs are also at risk of becoming infected.

Parvovirus is preventable with vaccination. Without vaccination, parvo is almost 90% fatal without treatment. The most susceptible breeds that have a higher risk of getting infected with parvo are Rottweilers, American pit bull terriers, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and Doberman pinschers.

Puppies are most at risk of getting the disease within the first few months of life.

Where Does Parvo Come From?

Parvovirus is found in any environment (lawns, homes, kennels, dog parks, etc.). It comes from infected dogs that excrete the virus in their vomit or feces.

Parvovirus is very hardy outside its host, can survive winter conditions, and is resistant to common household cleaners. The virus is then spread to puppies by ingestion through licking, or coming into contact with contaminated objects or other animals.

The virus then typically takes 5-7 days to incubate before signs of infection occur. This period, however, can be as short as 3 days to as long as 14 days.

A few days after exposure, the virus starts to shed in excretions like feces and can continue up to 2 weeks, intermittently. This means a dog can be contagious for up to 30 days with Parvo.

Parvovirus Symptoms

Symptoms of infection with Canine parvovirus start with:

  • Anorexia/Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Fever

After 1-2 days, symptoms may progress to:

  • Diarrhea (yellow, mucoid, or hemorrhagic)
  • Vomiting
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Shock
  • Sudden death

Prompt recognition of these signs is the best chance for your dog’s survival through supportive veterinary care.

Parvo Treatment

If you suspect your dog may have parvovirus, it is quick and easy to test for it at your veterinarian’s clinic.

Even if your dog does not test positive (because he may not be shedding), it is best to start treatment right away to prevent the signs of disease from worsening.

Treatment will first include getting your dog hydrated with intravenous or IV fluid therapy. This is the most important part of treatment since parvo causes a lot of fluid loss through diarrhea and vomiting.

Your veterinarian will also keep your dog off food and water to rest the GI tract while providing nutritional support via IV. Antibiotics will be given to prevent gut bacteria from getting into the bloodstream and causing sepsis and shock.

Other medications may also be given for pain, to stop vomiting, and increase appetite when your dog is ready to eat again.

Treatment for parvo is not always successful, but 80-95% of dogs can survive with aggressive early treatment. The downside of your dog having to undergo treatment for parvo is that it can be very expensive, sometimes requiring weeks of hospitalization and quarantine.

Can Dogs Get Parvo Twice?

Getting infected with parvovirus more than once is rare. If this occurs then it is from a different strain or wild variant of the Canine parvovirus. Dogs that recover from CPV infection are usually considered immune to the disease and don’t get reinfected for the rest of their life.

Adult dogs can get infected with parvo and not show any signs of disease but still be shedders. This is important to know since puppies or unvaccinated dogs that come into contact with these dogs can become infected and start to show symptoms.

How to Prevent Parvo

The best way to prevent Canine parvovirus infection is vaccination. During the early period of your puppy’s life, her mother has passed down maternal antibodies in the milk that prevent the puppy from getting infected with parvo.

Maternal antibodies may not always be present in every dog, however, and they start to decrease or wane at 6-8 weeks of age. At this point, vaccinations will continue every 3-4 weeks until 16-weeks of age.

Another booster will be given 1-year from the last and then vaccinations usually continue for every 3 years.

You can also prevent this disease by keeping your puppy from coming into contact with other dogs, keeping him or her off the floor or ground, and not letting him or her walk outside.

Since most environments (including dog parks, lawns, and even homes) are not disinfected regularly, a puppy can be exposed to CPV without any warning, making the vaccine protection even more important.

This is during the period when your puppy has not received their full set of shots yet. After the full set (usually 3 rounds) at 16 weeks, then he or she will be fully protected and ready to be social. 

Now you understand how Canine parvovirus is spread and how you can prevent your dog from becoming infected with it. If you’d like to learn more about parvo, additional information can be found in the AVMA brochure.

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