I used to work at a veterinary clinic in a less than affluent area in East Dallas. Every spring and fall, when the rains came, it seemed like the parvo cases would come rolling through in droves.
Parvo is a virus that has a multi-pronged approach. First it attacks the (usually) puppy’s immune system, blowing up all of the white blood cells that normally fight off infection. Then it goes in and just sandblasts out the intestinal lining, giving the puppies explosive, bloody, foul smelling (it has a very distinctive smell) diarrhea, vomiting, etc. As a result of the lack of white cells and the newly destroyed GI tract, the bacteria that normally live in the gut flee to the bloodstream. Here it runs willy-nilly, causing the puppies to become septic and dehydrated. Left untreated, they die.
I saw so much parvo that I became an expert of sorts.
I left that practice in Dallas and came to the one I’m at now, in a more affluent (and subsequently better vaccinated) area. I see far fewer cases of parvo. And the few I see are usually shelter dogs or strays. I’ve earned the title "Parvo Queen" because I realized that I have grown to actually love treating these cases; I have a good survival rate.
Granted, treating them in "the richest zip code in the U.S." is much more fun than treating parvo dogs in "the hood."
In a perfect world, parvo is usually very treatable (there are exceptions: Rottweilers — or Rockweilders, depending on which part of town you’re in — in particular have a much harder time with the disease than other breeds). Hospitalization, aggressive IV fluids to fight the dehydration, antibiotics to keep the bad bacteria at bay, supportive care (anti-vomiting medication, deworming, gastroprotectants, etc).
The problem is that all that treatment is usually very expensive, easily getting in the $1000-$2000+ range. Especially when I worked in the East Dallas practice, where the clients couldn’t even afford to vaccinate their dogs, it was absolutely heartbreaking.
It killed me to see these cute little puppies that felt like total crap, and that I knew I could help, but that the clients couldn’t afford to treat. I’d send them home with antibiotics, and maybe sub Q fluids, but I knew that half of them were going to die.
One of my worst moments as a vet and brand new graduate took place during peak parvo season. A client came in with a litter of four German Shepherd puppies. They all had parvo. I think they told me they had, I dunno, $500 to spend. Do what I saw fit.
My dilemma was this: do the full hospital treatment and save one puppy, or try to do partial treatment on all of them and hope they could pull through with a little help.
Foolishly, I thought that if I just hospitalized all of the puppies and they showed improvement, then the client would have a change of heart and continue to treat them all. At this hospital we had a whole parvo ward with four cages; we had a little tree of IV bags giving fluids to all four pups.
Sadly, as soon as the clients hit their spending limit, they told me to pull the catheters and send the puppies home. The whole litter died.
How do you pick one puppy to save? What a mess. I’m not even sure what I’d do in that situation today.
Yech. Thankfully my parvo cases are happier these days. Sick puppy comes in looking like death warmed over, has "that smell," fails "the poor man’s parvo test." (i.e., offer the pup a can of A/D normally irresistible food. If it refuses, I’m willing to bet the parvo test will be positive.) Client OKs the estimate, and after a few days of treatment the puppy is a puppy again. My endpoint for parvo treatment is when they eat, hold it down, and chew out their IV line.
That transformation from sick, sad little puddle to vibrant tail wagging puppy is one of the most sublime moments for me as a veterinarian. That’s why I love treating parvo.
Dr. Vivian Cardoso-Carroll