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Friday, November 21, 2008

The Perils of Parvo

We have a little puppy clinging to life in our hospital. He's critically ill, and has about a 50% chance of surviving. For the last three days he has been lingering, not really getting much better or even worse. There's no way for us to be able to predict what will happen at this point. All we can do is treat him, take it day by day, and hope for the best. The worst part about it is that this was completely preventable. He has parvo.

Parvo virus is a very serious intestinal disease, and highly contagious. Puppies are most susceptible, though dogs of any age can potentially get it. Interestingly, this virus (which affects only dogs) mutated from the feline panleukopenia virus in the 1970s. It was first recognized in 1978 and had spread world-wide within two years. Over the years very effective vaccines were developed, and nowadays it's one of the most common ones given to dogs. The vaccine is very effective, and is a major reason to make sure your dog receives all of his or her immunizations.

The virus has devestating effects on a dog's body. It first attacks the lining of the intestine, causing the villi (small projections where food is absorbed) to die and slough off. Several bad things happen because of this infection. The dog becomes very nauseous, not wanting to eat or drink. Even if they try, they often cannot hold down food or water. If anything makes it past the stomach, the absorptive areas of the intestine are gone, so almost nothing is absorbed or retained by the dog. The lack of an intestinal lining means that the dog also looses much water through the intestines, causing severe diarrhea. The combination of fluid loss and an inability to take in more leads to rapid and often severe dehydration. Bacteria in the intestinal tract can get into the dog's blood stream through the weakened barriers in the intestine, leading to severe systemic infection. Dogs that are infected in the uterus or before about 8 weeks old can have the virus also infect the heart, though this is much les common.

This combination of effects become evident very quickly. A dog can be fine one day and critically ill in less than 48 hours. Most puppies who contract parvo will die without treatment. Even with treatment we can't save all of them. Truthfully, there is no cure for parvo. We give them intravenous fluids and antibiotics, and try to control their symptoms as best as possible. Then we have to just wait until they die or their body is able to clear the virus and recover. Basically, treatment involves trying to keep the dog alive until it heals on its own. And that can take anywhere from a few days to a week or more. During that time, they can be seriously sick and in pain. It's definitely not a very pleasant way to struggle with life.

Luckily, the parvo vaccine is very effective. However, it does no good if it's not given. Puppies should start receiving vaccines around 6 weeks old, and every three weeks or so after that. The puppy we're treating didn't receive the immunization before becoming infected. And because of that, he might die. I see many people who don't get their puppies in for vaccines until they are several months old, and some not even then. Later in the day I saw an 8 month-old poodle that was having bloody diarrhea, not eating, acting lethargic, and starting to vomit. All of the classic signs of parvo, and it had never received vaccines. The owners couldn't afford any tests or treatment, so we're not sure if that was the problem. But it well could have been.

So please make sure your dogs receive their vaccines as recommended by a veterinarian. It truly is a matter of life and death.