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Your dog needs you to help protect him from parvovirus.

Parvo has no definite cure, is expensive to treat, and can be fatal. But there is good news: parvo is easy to prevent.

What is parvo?

Parvo is caused by a virus (canine parvovirus type 2). Parvo emerged in the United States in 1978 and killed puppies in epidemic proportions until the mid 1980s, when a vaccine was developed. In many parts of North America, the disease is now scarce due to effective eradication strategies. However, parvo remains a major cause of puppy illness and death in many places, including our own community.

The virus is passed into the feces of infected puppies, and it can persists in the environment for years. It is nearly impossible to avoid coming into contact with the disease, and that is why getting your puppy its shots is so important.

The most at-risk for parvo are unvaccinated puppies two to six months of age, when the puppy’s “maternal antibody” levels are declining. (“Maternal antibodies” are what protect the puppy from diseases like parvo during his first eight to sixteen weeks of life. These are transmitted to the puppy from its mom via the placenta and the milk.)

Parvovirus attacks the cells lining the puppy’s small intestine, causing the intestinal wall to die and slough. Signs begin with anorexia, lethargy, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. The virus also kills the puppy’s white blood cells, making him defenseless against bacteria that cross into the bloodstream through the compromised intestinal barrier. Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, protein loss and sepsis (bacteria and bacterial toxins overwhelming the bloodstream) ultimately progress to shock and death.

Treatment for parvo infection

There is no specific cure for parvo. Therapy is aimed at managing the complications of parvo—essentially keeping the puppy alive—while his immune system fights the virus. Hospitalization usually lasts 3-10 days although survival is never guaranteed. The cost of treating a parvo puppy is approximately ten times the cost of preventing the disease by getting your puppy its shots.

How to protect your puppy from parvo

All puppies should be vaccinated against parvo every 3-4 weeks beginning at 6-8 weeks of age until at least 16 weeks of age. The sequence stimulates the puppy’s immune system to generate antibodies to parvo. All vaccines should be administered by or under the supervision of a veterinarian.

If you have a pure-bred puppy, heads up: new owners often believe the breeders take care of all the shots. That’s not true. Breeders do often administer the first round of vaccines at 6-8 weeks, but new owners have to follow up with the subsequent vaccines.

Purebred puppies commonly acquire parvo, as many new owners mistakenly believe that their’ new puppy received all of its shots while with the breeder. Although breeders often administer the first round of vaccines at 6-8 weeks, it is the new owner’s responsibility to follow up with the boosters.

The parvo vaccine is usually administered as a combo vaccine to protect the pup against otherdeadly diseases, such as distemper. With the first vaccines, a “dewormer” is routinely administered, as intestinal worm infestations can also lead to serious illness and death in puppies, and migration of these worms through a human host can lead serious health problems such as blindness.

Not sure if your puppy needs parvo shots? For more information on parvo, or to make sure your puppy is protected, contact your family veterinarian, who can help make sure your puppy is protected.

© 2011 Melinda Lopez, DVM