Parvo in Dogs: What To Know About Canine Parvovirus

Updated May 23, 2024
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Summary

Canine parvovirus (CPV, or commonly referred to as “parvo”) is one of the most serious viruses that dogs can get. Thankfully, it is very preventable with proper vaccination.

This virus was discovered in the 1970s and rapidly became a serious threat to canine health. This is primarily because the virus is hard to kill, can live for a long time in the environment, is shed in large quantities by infected dogs, is highly contagious, and is often fatal without appropriate treatment. This is why the parvo vaccine is considered a core vaccine for puppies and dogs.

While the highly effective parvovirus vaccine has decreased the risk to properly vaccinated dogs, parvo in dogs is still widely prevalent, especially in puppies and poorly vaccinated adolescent dogs.

Here’s everything you need to know about parvo in dogs—how to protect your puppy, parvo symptoms to look for, and what to do if you your dog is sick.

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What Is Parvo in Dogs?

Canine parvovirus is an infectious DNA virus that commonly causes severe illness in young and unvaccinated dogs. It primarily affects the body’s rapidly dividing cells, meaning the intestinal tract and bone marrow are the most affected. Heart muscle cells of very young puppies can also be damaged by parvovirus.

Can Adult Dogs Get Parvo?

Although parvovirus is most common in puppies and adolescent dogs, it can also affect adult or senior dogs, especially if they are unvaccinated.

Parvo Symptoms in Dogs

A dog with parvovirus will usually start to show parvo symptoms within three to seven days of infection. Early signs of parvo include:

As the virus progresses, your dog may begin to experience:

Very sick puppies with parvovirus may:

How Do Dogs Get Parvo?

infographic depicting the lifecycle of parvovirus and how it's spread to dogs

Parvo in dogs is spread by contact with contaminated feces, but you don’t have to see feces for the virus to be present. It can live on surfaces that have been contaminated, including on:

  • The ground

  • Kennels

  • Peoples’ hands

  • Objects

  • Clothing

Dogs can also carry parvovirus on their fur or paws if they’ve come in contact with contaminated material.

Parvovirus in dogs is an incredibly contagious disease that spreads quickly and efficiently. Parvovirus can survive in a dog’s environment for months, if not years, and it’s resistant to many disinfectants. However, it is susceptible to diluted bleach and some specialized cleaners commonly used in veterinary hospitals.

Can Humans Get Parvo?

Parvovirus is species-specific, so humans have their own version of the virus. This means that humans cannot get parvovirus from dogs, and dogs cannot get parvovirus from people.

However, it’s still important to use the utmost caution by wearing personal protective equipment if you come into contact with a parvo puppy. While you may not get parvo, the virus could be spread to another dog via your hands or clothes.

How Is Parvovirus Diagnosed in Dogs? Are There Parvo Tests?

Fecal SNAP ELISA tests (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), otherwise called Parvo SNAP tests, are the most common way of diagnosing parvo in dogs and puppies. The test requires a fecal swab and takes about 10 minutes.

While this test is accurate, a negative result does not necessarily rule out parvovirus in a symptomatic dog, as they may not be shedding the viral antigen at the time of testing. Further testing may be needed in these cases.

Stages of Parvo in Dogs

The stages of canine parvovirus are the same as most viral infections: infection, incubation, and illness.

1. Infection

The puppy (or adult dog) is exposed to parvovirus via fecal material from an infected dog.

Even if there is no visible feces, a dog can be infected by the environment (ground or surface) or an object that came into contact with an infected dog.

2. Incubation

There is an incubation period (usually three to seven days) in which the dog is infected with parvovirus but not yet showing symptoms.

During this period, the virus specifically seeks out the most rapidly dividing cells in the body—typically, it starts attacking the tonsils or lymph nodes in the throat. By targeting these rapidly dividing cells, the virus is able to multiply effectively and efficiently to invade other parts of the dog’s system.

Once parvovirus has multiplied and entered the bloodstream, the virus will seek out other sources of rapidly diving cells. The most hard-hit areas are:

  • Bone marrow

  • Cells that line the walls of the small intestines

In very young puppies, parvovirus can also infect the heart, which causes inflammation of the heart muscle, poor heart function, and arrhythmias.

3. Illness

When parvovirus infects the bone marrow, it attacks the young immune cells, which leads a drop in protective white blood cells.

This weakens the body’s ability to protect itself and allows the virus to invade the gastrointestinal (GI) tract more easily. This is where the worst damage happens. The virus attacks the lining of the small intestine, which prevents the dog’s GI tract from being able to:

  • Absorb nutrients

  • Prevent fluid loss into the stool

  • Stop bacteria from moving into the gut wall and then into the bloodstream

This leads to serious health issues.

While parvo in dogs is not always fatal, those that do not survive typically die from dehydration or shock—along with the damage caused by the septic toxins from the intestinal bacteria escaping into the bloodstream.

Parvo Treatment in Dogs

There is no specific cure for parvovirus in dogs, so treatment revolves around supporting the puppy so their body can fight it off.

Supportive care for canine parvovirus generally includes:

  • Hospitalization with intravenous fluids

  • Antiemetics to stop vomiting

  • Focusing on nutrition, with a feeding tube, if necessary

  • Correction of any electrolyte imbalances or low blood glucose

  • Some vets may also recommend treatment with a canine parvo monoclonal antibody (CPMA)

Puppies exhibiting signs of sepsis—where the gut becomes so “leaky” from disease that bacteria from the intestines enter the bloodstream—require antibiotic therapy. Puppies with a high fever or low white blood cell count may also receive antibiotics.

The highest risk of death occurs around 24–72 hours after you see the symptoms of parvo in dogs. If a parvo puppy is hospitalized, given lots of supportive care, and monitored closely, the survival rate is usually around 85–90%.

How Much Does Parvo Treatment Cost?

The cost of treatment for parvovirus in dogs varies based on the severity of the illness, length of the hospital stay, and location of the veterinary clinic.

Costs could start around several hundred dollars for outpatient treatment and go up to several thousand dollars for a severe case with hospitalization. On average, expect treatment to cost $1,000–$2,100 minimum.

It’s much more cost-effective to have your dog fully vaccinated than to have them contract parvovirus. A parvo vaccine typically costs $30–50.

Recovery and Management of Parvo in Dogs

Recovery from parvovirus in dogs varies case by case. Full recovery may take quite a while depending on the severity of the disease and the damage it has done. Dogs that can recover from infection are often sick for five to 10 days after symptoms begin.

It is very important that puppies with parvovirus receive adequate nutrition so their intestines can heal. Dogs recovering from a parvo infection should be fed a bland, easily digestible diet. Hill’s Science Diet®, Purina®, and Royal Canin® all make prescription veterinary diets that are carefully formulated to be nutritionally balanced and gentle on the GI tract:

Hospital stays generally last around five to seven days, but this varies depending on the severity of symptoms. The highest risk of death occurs around 24–72 hours after you see symptoms of parvo in dogs.

If a parvo puppy is hospitalized, given lots of supportive care, and monitored closely, the survival rate is usually around 85–95%. Survival is more difficult if the dog is not given veterinary attention quickly after showing clinical signs or if the dog is not hospitalized with sufficient supportive care.

How Long Does Parvo Last?

Dogs exposed to parvo have an incubation period of three to seven days. During this time, they may start to shed the virus a few days before they show clinical signs. 

Dogs treated for parvo will often need to be hospitalized for five to seven days but may be sick even longer. Most dogs are considered recovered and no longer infectious after 14 days from the onset of the first clinical signs, although in some cases it may be up to 21 days. After being shed, the parvo virus can live in the environment for months or even years.

Are There Home Remedies for Parvo?

There are no home remedies for parvo in dogs. In some cases, if a dog is not severely ill or if expensive treatment is prohibitive, then treatment on an outpatient basis may be attempted with help from the vet.

Outpatient treatment for parvo in dogs includes:

  • Subcutaneous fluids (fluids given under the skin as a source of hydration)

  • A special, highly digestible diet

  • Antiemetics to stop vomiting

  • Antidiarrheals

  • Antibiotics

While some dogs can recover from this protocol, parvo treatment is much safer and more successful if the dog is hospitalized.

How To Prevent Your Dog From Getting Parvo

The canine parvo vaccine is most often given in a combination vaccine that goes by a variety of acronyms: DHPP, DAPP, DA2PP, DHLPP, etc. This is considered a core vaccine and should be given every two to four weeks from 6–8 weeks to 16–20 weeks of age.

The most important thing for preventing parvo is making sure you get your puppy in on time for their vaccines.

Puppies should only socialize with fully vaccinated dogs until they are able to be fully vaccinated themselves. Areas where your puppy can come into contact with unvaccinated dogs, such as dog parks, should be avoided.

A dog will need to receive a booster vaccine at 1 year of age to be considered fully vaccinated. Dogs should also continue to receive vaccines every one to three years for life or have their immunity monitored using parvovirus antibody tests.

Parvo in Dogs FAQs

Can a dog be cured of parvo?

Yes, dogs and puppies can be successfully treated for parvovirus. They have a much better chance of survival if hospitalized for IV fluids and medications versus those treated with outpatient therapy. 

What are the first signs of parvo in puppies?

Initially, a puppy may seem lethargic and disinterested in food. This can progress to vomiting and diarrhea (with or without blood) and fever.

Take your puppy to the vet right away if they are experiencing lethargy, anorexia, vomiting, or diarrhea. The vet will likely start with a parvo test and make a plan from there.

Can a vaccinated dog get parvo?

While no vaccine can promise to be 100% effective, the canine parvovirus vaccine provides excellent protection from the virus. It is very unlikely that an appropriately vaccinated dog would become ill with canine parvovirus.

Can a dog get parvo twice?

Immunity for parvovirus lasts for several years. While not impossible, it is very unlikely that a dog that has recovered from canine parvovirus would get it again.

However, this does not mean that your dog does not need to be vaccinated against canine parvovirus if they’ve recovered from it in the past. Routine vaccinations should still be performed.

Can cats get parvo from dogs?

Cats also have a type of parvovirus that causes severe disease, known as feline panleukopeniaWhile dogs cannot get feline parvovirus from cats, cats can become infected with canine parvovirus. Cats often have much more mild clinical signs than dogs do, but there is a strain of parvo in puppies and dogs that can cause severe illness in cats.

The feline parvovirus vaccine, which is part of the core FVRCP vaccine, may offer some cross-protection against canine parvovirus.

References

Chalifoux NV, Parker SE, Cosford KL. Prognostic indicators at presentation for canine parvoviral enteritis: 322 cases (2001‐2018). Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. 2021;31(3):402-413.

Horecka K, Porter S, Amirian ES, Jefferson E. A Decade of Treatment of Canine Parvovirus in an Animal Shelter: A Retrospective Study. Animals. 2020;10(6):939.

Parvovirus: Transmission to treatment. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

References


Ellen Malmanger, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Ellen Malmanger, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Ellen Malmanger is originally from Arkansas, but attended Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine for veterinary school....


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