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Canine Parvovirus: Parvo in Dogs & Puppies

dog with parvovirus

Dogs owners are likely familiar with canine parvovirus, or parvo. The disease is highly contagious, most likely to impact young puppies, and can be fatal within just days. Early detection and treatment from a veterinarian is essential and can be lifesaving. What do pet parents need to know about parvo? How can you keep your dog safe and healthy? 

Table of contents 

What is parvo? 

Canine parvovirus (CPV) is a highly contagious virus that affects dogs and puppies of all ages. It is spread through direct contact with an infected dog or contact with infected feces, saliva, urine, or any surface, and can cause severe symptoms and even death. Often referred to as parvo, the virus targets a dog’s stomach and small intestine, where it destroys cells, impairs absorption, and disrupts the gut barrier. Parvo in puppies also affects the bone marrow and lymphopoietic tissues, and in some cases can also affect the heart. 

Signs of parvo in dogs 

Parvo causes gastrointestinal illness in dogs that when left untreated, become increasingly worse and eventually fatal. Because parvo is so dangerous, it is important for pet owners to be able to identify the clinical signs of the illness in order to seek prompt veterinary care.  

Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include: 

  • Vomiting 
  • Severe, often bloody diarrhea 
  • Dehydration 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss 
  • Fever 
  • Lethargy and weakness 
  • Abdominal pain and bloating 

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, most deaths from parvovirus occur within 48 to 72 hours following the onset of clinical signs. If your dog shows any of these signs, you should contact your veterinarian immediately. Be sure to notify the vet’s staff ahead of time of your suspicions and your dog’s symptoms, so that they can take the appropriate quarantine procedures to prevent your puppy from infecting other dogs. 

How can dogs contract parvo? 

Canine parvovirus is most commonly spread through direct contact with infected feces, contaminated food or water, and contact with other infected dogs. Ingesting, licking, and even sniffing contaminated substances can lead to transmission of the virus.  

Parvo can also contaminate kennel surfaces, food and water bowls, collars and leashes, and the hands and clothing of people who handle infected dogs. The virus can survive in the environment for long periods of time—between 3 and 9 months!—making it difficult to avoid transmission. It is resistant to heat, cold, humidity, drying, and most household cleaning products. Even trace amounts of feces from an infected dog may harbor the virus and infect other dogs that come into the infected environment. The virus is readily transmitted from place to place on the hair or feet of dogs or via contaminated cages, shoes, or other objects. 

Additionally, infected dogs can shed vast numbers of viruses. This can make it difficult to disinfect an area once it has been exposed to a dog infected with parvo. 

What dogs are at a higher risk of getting parvo? 

While all dogs can contract parvo, there are some dog populations that are at an increased risk of infection. Some of the factors that increase a dog’s risk of contracting canine parvovirus and experiencing severe symptoms include age, breed, living environment, and vaccination status. 

Puppies are at a particularly high risk of contracting parvovirus because their immune systems are not yet fully developed, making them more vulnerable to the virus. Puppy parents also often get conflicting information about their dog’s weak immune system and the importance of socialization. Young dogs need to explore and learn about the world around them, including other dogs and environments that may be contaminated with parvo. Supporting your dog’s early development while keeping them safe and healthy is challenging! 

Puppies also fall into another high-risk population: unvaccinated dogs. Additionally, dogs living in crowded areas with poor sanitation are also more likely to contract parvovirus. It is very important for dog owners in these circumstances to be especially vigilant about signs of parvovirus. 

Diagnosing parvo in dogs 

Because parvo is so serious and potentially fatal, it is important for veterinarians to be able to diagnose the virus quickly and accurately. Veterinarians typically use a combination of physical examination, laboratory testing, and radiography to diagnose canine parvovirus. 

Physical examination allows a veterinarian to look for signs of illness such as fever, lethargy, vomiting, or diarrhea. Laboratory testing can be used to detect the presence of the virus in a sample taken from the dog’s body or feces. Radiography can be used to look for changes in the lungs or other organs, which could also indicate an infection. 

In addition to fecal testing, a simple measure of white blood cell count is often the clincher for a parvo diagnosis. Because one of the first things parvo infects is a dog’s bone marrow, a low white blood cell count can be suggestive of parvo infection. 

Parvo treatment 

It is important to note that there is no cure for parvo. Treatment depends on the severity of the infection and involves supportive care and symptoms management. The illness can progress quickly, so prompt treatment is essential for a successful recovery. 

Supportive care 

A hospital stay is often necessary for dogs infected with parvo so that they can receive intravenous fluids and nutrients to replenish their bodies after vomiting and diarrhea has caused severe dehydration. An intravenous drip is often preferred because the digestive tract of dogs with parvo is usually in distress and can’t tolerate or absorb what the dog needs. Blood transfusions may also be helpful to boost low blood cell counts that may result from parvo infecting the bone marrow. In addition, medications to control nausea and diarrhea are sometimes useful. 

Secondary infections 

Parvo weakens dogs’ immune systems and lowers their white blood cell count, reducing their ability to fight off secondary infections. Unfortunately, the damage the virus does to a dog’s intestinal wall increases the likelihood of such an infection. Your vet may put your dog on antibiotic medication to help fight the infection if intestinal bacteria have entered the bloodstream.  

Once they are under the care of a veterinarian, dogs who survive the first 3-4 days often make a complete recovery. Recovery times vary depending on the severity of the case, but it usually takes approximately one week for dogs to recover from parvo. 

How to clean your home when your dog has parvo 

In the very unfortunate case that your dog contracts parvo, it is important to take the necessary steps to disinfect your home and any environments you or your dog have likely contaminated. Here are some tips for cleaning up after parvo: 

  1. Disinfect everything with bleach – Despite its relative resistance to cleaning agents, parvo can be inactivated by bleach. Cleaning with a solution of one part bleach mixed with approximately 30 parts water is an acceptable method for disinfecting any indoor area, including flooring and other surfaces, food/water bowls, bedding, clothes and footwear, and toys. Soak items for 10-15 minutes before rinsing and use hot water for laundry. 
  2. Steam clean or dispose – If you are unable to clean an item with bleach, you may be better off disposing of it than taking a chance that it could infect another dog. For large items like couches, rugs, or carpets, a thorough steam cleaning may be a good option. 
  3. Wait it out – If you are still concerned that you may not have disinfected your home well enough to welcome an unvaccinated dog into it, wait one year to allow time for the virus to naturally die off. 
  4. Cleaning outside – Once areas such as lawn or dirt have been contaminated with parvovirus, it is practically impossible to adequately clean. Dilute existing parvo in your yard by rinsing with water as much as possible for several days and letting it dry, ideally in the sun. Unvaccinated dogs should not be allowed in these areas for years after a sick dog has been on them. 

Parvo prevention 

Vaccination and good hygiene are critical components of preventing the spread of parvo in dogs. According to AVMA, puppies should receive a dose of canine parvovirus vaccine between 14 and 16 weeks of age, regardless of how many doses they received earlier, to develop adequate protection. Making sure your dog is up to date on all their vaccinations will go a long way in keeping them healthy and happy.  

Until a puppy has received their complete series of vaccinations, pet owners should use caution when bringing their pet to places where young puppies congregate, such as pet shops, parks, obedience classes, doggy daycare, kennels, and grooming establishments. Reputable pet businesses reduce exposure risk by requiring vaccinations, health examinations, good hygiene, and isolation of ill puppies and dogs. 

Contact with known infected dogs and their premises should always be avoided. Additionally, people who are in contact with sick or exposed dogs should avoid handling other dogs or at least wash their hands and change their clothes before doing so. It is better to be safe than sorry, so do not let your dog come into contact with the fecal waste of other dogs while outdoors. Prompt and proper disposal of pet waste is always advisable as a way to limit spread of illnesses including parvo.