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All About Parvovirus in Dogs and Puppies

by Dr. Katie Hogan, DVM

What is Parvovirus? 

Canine parvovirus, or “parvo,” is a serious and sometimes fatal disease of canines. It is a virus that is highly contagious and spread to unvaccinated dogs and puppies. Parvo causes damage to the intestinal lining, resulting in severe (and often bloody) diarrhea and vomiting. 

The viral disease doesn’t kill the affected animal directly- but the blood loss, bone marrow suppression, secondary bacterial infection, and severe dehydration can and does. Even with aggressive medical management, hospitalization, and IV fluids, approximately 25-30% of affected dogs pass away from this terrible disease. 

All dog owners should be familiar with parvovirus, how it is treated, and (most importantly) how to prevent it. This article will review some key information about this serious and often deadly virus. With the information in this post, you will be armed with the knowledge to protect your canine pal from this terrible disease!

How do Puppies Get Parvovirus? 

Dogs and puppies get the virus from coming into contact with infectious spores from the feces of infected animals. Parvovirus has unique characteristics that make it very hardy in the environment. This means that your dog or puppy could come in contact with the virus up to seven years after the infected spores were passed. 

Put simply, your dog doesn’t need to come into contact with infected dogs to get sick. It only needs to come into contact with infected soil. 

Dogs are most susceptible to parvovirus before their first birthday.

How do I keep my puppy from catching the virus?

Although the virus is very serious and often fatal, it is easily preventable with a vaccination. Vaccinating dogs and puppies will almost always prevent the disease. In most cases, this vaccine costs less than $30 and can be administered at any time by your veterinarian. 

Young puppies need more than one vaccination; the recommendation is that they get vaccinated for parvo every 3 weeks from the age of 6 weeks to 15 weeks old (with at least 2 sets of the vaccine given after they are 12 weeks old). After the initial puppy series, adult dogs should be vaccinated annually to strengthen their immunity against the disease. 

Is There a Cure for Parvo? How is Parvo Treated? 

Because parvo is a viral disease (like the flu virus), there is no cure. Instead, treatment is aimed at supporting the patient and helping them as much as possible while their body fights off the disease. Treatment commonly includes anti-nausea medications, a rapid rate of IV fluids, antibiotics to fight secondary bacterial infection, and sometimes blood or plasma transfusions. 

Puppies with parvo that are hospitalized have a 75% or better chance of survival. Puppies that are treated on an outpatient basis have a 50-65% chance of survival. Puppies that do not receive any veterinary care are very likely to die. 

The average cost of hospitalizing a pet with parvovirus is between $1,000-$1,600. This figure increases if the pet needs to be hospitalized for longer than a few days, if a blood or plasma transfusion is required, or if the puppy is a large breed that needs larger dosages of medications to be effective. When you compare the cost of treatment to the cost of vaccinating a puppy for parvovirus—the vaccine really is a no-brainer. 

How is Parvovirus Diagnosed?

Parvovirus can be diagnosed by a veterinarian with a point-of-care snap test. This test is performed by obtaining a rectal swab and sending it through a small device that checks for a specific set of proteins (called antigens) that the virus secretes. Because the test looks for the antigens (made by the virus itself), false positive results (where the test says the animal has the disease but the animal actually does not) are extremely rare.

False negatives (when the test says the animal doesn’t have the virus but it actually does) results are also rare, but are more common than false positives with this test. This can occur if it is early in the course of the disease, or if there are not any antigens in the rectal swab collected. Because of this, a negative parvo test does not always mean that the pet does not have parvovirus. 

Most veterinarians can run a “snap” test for Parvovirus in as little as 15 minutes.

Can a Vaccine Cause a False Positive Parvo Test?

No! Vaccinations, when administered to a pet, cause the body to release antibodies to fight the disease (not antigens like we discussed above). Because the parvo test looks for antigens (produced by the actual virus) and not antibodies (the body’s response to a virus), a positive parvo test indicates true infection and cannot be caused by a vaccine. 

What Should I Do if I Suspect That My Dog or Puppy Has Parvovirus? 

If you suspect that your animal has parvovirus, or if you have a young puppy or an unvaccinated dog that you think or know has been exposed to parvovirus, seek veterinary attention ASAP. Prompt veterinary care is strongly associated with positive outcomes and survival with this disease. 

If you cannot get to a veterinarian right away, separate your dog from other dogs and do not take him in any public places. Monitor your puppy’s ins and outs- make sure she is at least drinking if not eating- and get to veterinarian ASAP. 

Can People or Other Animals Get Parvo from an Infected Dog?

This is very unlikely. Canine parvovirus, like other members of the parvovirus family tree, is somewhat species- specific. Only members of the canine family (dogs, wolves, coyotes, etc) are usually susceptible to canine parvovirus. 

That being said, viral diseases can mutate and adapt to their surroundings, and so a virus jumping to another species previously not known to be susceptible is not unheard of. In fact, the most virulent form of parvo, CPV-2, is thought to be a mutated form of a feline parvovirus, panleukopenia (also called feline distemper).

CPV-2 has three subspecies, and CPV-2c may affect unvaccinated cats. The parvovirus won’t affect you or any humans in the household. However, if you have a dog with parvovirus and also own cats, it isn’t a bad idea to separate the cats, update their vaccinations for feline distemper, and monitor for symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. 

My Parents Never Heard of Parvo When They Were Younger. Why is That? 

This virus was unheard of before the 1970s, but quickly became more common once CPV-2 developed. This virus is thought to have mutated from a feline parvovirus, and is now considered to be ubiquitous in the environment. A pathogen that is ubiquitous is found almost everywhere unless active cleaning and disinfecting protocols are used. 

In Summary:

  • Canine parvovirus, or “parvo” is a very serious and often fatal viral disease in dogs and puppies. 
  • All unvaccinated puppies and dogs are at risk of catching parvovirus. 
  • Parvo is easily prevented with a vaccine that your veterinarian can administer for under $30. 
  • Parvo virus is very difficult to treat once an animal catches it. Treatment can cost up to $2000 (or more) and, even then, up to 20% of affected animals may pass away. 
  • If you think that your dog could have parvo virus, quarantine them from other animals and get to the vet ASAP!

Thanks for reading this post about parvovirus in dogs and puppies. I hope that you have learned a few helpful things about this virus and how to prevent it. If you have any additional questions, please comment on this post or ask your family’s veterinarian! 

I would also appreciate it if you took a couple of minutes to share this post with your friends and family on social media so that you can help them learn how to be the most awesome pet parent possible! For more animal and veterinary content, please visit and follow my personal blog! Thank you so much for reading and being involved in the CincyPet online community.

Dr. Katie Hogan is a full-time veterinarian at Grady Veterinary Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. She works with dogs, cats, and exotic companion animals and is dedicated to furthering the human-animal bond. In her free time, she creates online content for her blog, KatieHoganDVM.com, which is dedicated to helping pets, pet parents, and veterinarians live the best lives imaginable.

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