Why Should You Vaccinate Against Parvovirus?

To some dog owners, the issue of vaccination is controversial—should it even be done? But to anyone living in developing country where most dogs and cats are not vaccinated or to anyone unlucky enough to see an outbreak, the issue is a no brainer. Take the following historical case in point.

Unknown infectious agent drops dogs in droves.
It was a scorching 90 degrees and the young stockbroker, in a hurry to reach the comfort of his air-conditioned house, was taking a short cut through the park. The area looked pristine, but little did he know, thousands of microscopic organisms were collecting on his shoes. They weren't after him. He was just their transport. What they really wanted were his two pups. And they would wreak havoc with them when they met.
"I was vacationing in Cape Cod when it hit," says Dr. Leland Carmichael, a veterinary virologist at the Baker Institute of Animal Health at Cornell University. I received an urgent call from my lab. 'There's something strange going on here,' says my associate Dr. Max Appel. 'We're being inundated with fecal samples.'
That July 1978, dogs were dropping in droves to an epidemic of diarrhea the likes of which had never been seen. Veterinarians all over the U.S. were sending samples to Carmichael's lab in hopes that the watery excrement held the clue to the mysterious outbreaks. Carmichael and Appel evaluated the samples under the electron microscope, a gargantuan magnifying device, and in record time they had a suspect. It looked surprisingly familiar. Like a cat virus they knew well. And after further tests, they knew for sure it was a relative. A new virus. They dubbed it Canine Parvovirus.
Identifying the beast was only the first step. With diarrhea in adult dogs spreading across the U.S. and a more fatal form showing up in young puppies -- sudden death due to heart failure -- Carmichael and company were under the gun. "We dropped all other research," says Carmichael, "and embarked on a crash program, directing all our resources to the new virus." They needed to know more about the virus so they could find a way to stop its lightening spread.
The task proved challenging. The virus replicated quickly and was passed easily through diarrhea. Plus, it was practically impossible to kill. The particles could live in the environment for months and were resistant to most disinfectants other than bleach. This meant that anyone and anything traveling through an infected area could transport the virus. As a result, even kennels and households with no history of contact from outside dogs suddenly spiked disease.
In the following months, Carmichael's lab was flooded with over 10,000 telephone queries and thousands of cases were diagnosed from samples from around the world. But luckily, by October things were slowing down. The virus was highly infective with possibly hundreds of thousands of dogs falling ill, but only about 5% died. Because those that recovered were immune, the population was gaining a natural immunity to the disease. New cases mostly involved puppies.
This natural immunity didn't stop the disease though. While the first commercial vaccines were marketed in 1981, they weren't in time for a second more deadly wave of disease in 1980. This time fewer dogs were affected but more died. The virus had mutated to a more deadly form affecting primarily dogs under five months of age and killing whole litters of younger puppies.

Preventing parvovirus infection by vaccinating
Today we have a number of good vaccines against parvovirus and we no longer see nationwide outbreaks. However, every year, hospitals see micro outbreaks and occasionally large outbreaks of over 100 dogs occur, especially at shelters. In fact, if you work at a shelter, you are likely to see an outbreak of distemper or Parvovirus at least every several years. And infectious disease is such a prominent issue at shelters that there’s now a well-established specialty in veterinary medicine called shelter medicine. The veterinary specialists in focus on keeping large groups of animals healthy rather than just focusing on the individual. They set up programs and make choices that ultimately keep more animals safe. Even in the absence of actual outbreaks, many individual cases or Parvo infection occur. In 2009 one of Oprah Winfrey’s puppies died of Parvovirus infection after staying at an animal shelter in Chicago. (http://www.examiner.com/pets-in-boston/oprah-s-dog-dies-from-parvo-dog-owners-urged-to-get-their-dogs-vaccinated-for-parvovirus)

Why does parvovirus still persist?
Parvovirus persists because the virus is highly infectious and difficult to destroy. Infected dogs shed millions of virus particles in their feces and potential victims need only ingest a small amount to become infected. New victims can become sick within 4-7 days of exposure. Secondly, although vaccines are available, not all vaccines are equally good. This is where your veterinarian comes in.
Lastly, many dog owners still fail to get their puppies vaccinated and this is the most common cause of outbreaks. Puppies need to be vaccinated in a series of shots every 3-4 weeks starting around 6-8 weeks of age and extending to 14-16 weeks—longer in susceptible breeds such as Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers. Adult dogs who've never been vaccinated may need a series of two shots to start off, although one administration of parvovirus vaccine is considered to be protective. Both groups should have regular boosters—the American Animal Hospital Association recommends not more than every 3 years. Alternatively, individuals can have their titers taken to see whether they need a booster yet.

How do you tell if your dog has Parvovirus?
Dogs rarely develop heart disease from parvo now, but if your puppy develops vomiting or diarrhea or suddenly becomes listless take him to your veterinarian immediately. He or she can diagnose the disease using a specific diagnostic test. Many diseases can cause diarrhea but parvo is the number one cause in dogs under six months of age. If your dog does have parvo, expect an extended hospital visit. Treatment often requires intensive hospital care including fluids, antibiotics and even a blood transfusion. The total stay can last days and sometimes several weeks and even then, cure is not guaranteed.

To find out why puppies need multiple vaccinations, read Puppy Vaccinations: Why Puppies Need a Series of Shots.

Have you ever had a pet or seen a pet get parvo?

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Positively Expert: Sophia Yin

Dr. Yin is an internationally-acclaimed veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist who lectures and teaches workshops to dog trainers, shelter workers, and veterinary staff, and is the author of three books including a veterinary textbook and DVD set on behavior. Her "pet-friendly" techniques have set the standard of care for veterinarians.


13 thoughts on “Why Should You Vaccinate Against Parvovirus?

  1. Judi Wiegle

    Not only was my (now 12 year old) puppy diagnosed with parvo a mere 4 days after we got her, but I have administered nursing care to MANY parvo victims. It is a terrible virus, treatment is messy, challenging and expensive, not to mention carries extreme risk of carrying throughout the hospital causing other puppies to contract nosocomial infections.

    My Jane was fortunate 12 years ago, and lived, but 3 of her little mates did not. PLEASE, everyone take your puppies to the veterinarian and complete their puppy vaccines...the entire series. It is a small cost compared to the cost of treatment, and possibly your puppies life! And remember...not all vaccines are created equal. Go to your vet!

  2. Dayna

    I have seen parvo, several times. The pups that were the sickest, or that were lost, were the ones that HAD their vaccinations. The non vaxed ones were fine.

  3. Paula Lancaster

    In 1981 I got an Aussie pup named Gypsy. She was about 10 weeks old. Within a few days she was terribly ill. I called the vet and described the symptoms. He told me it was Parvo and told me not to bring her in as it was so contagious. I asked him what to do and he told me the cure was to fight the symptoms. So for weeks I cooked for her, spoon fed her, dosed her with vitamins and fluids. She eventually survived. Many pups do not. This is a vicious, cruel disease. Vaccinate your pups!

  4. Kim

    Thanks for your thoughts Dayna. Vaccinations cause mutations in viruses that make them more deadly. This is true in humans as well as dogs. Most people don't know that in the whopping cough outbreaks we've seen in recent years, the vaccinated kids were more likely to get sick or die compared to the unvaxed. I would suggest that instead of automatically getting a dog inoculated, test for titres. I did for my dog and her immunity was very strong against parvo; this in spite of the fact that she had had only 2 shots in her first yr. and she was now 6.

  5. Cheryl

    Your point about dogs in developing countries is well taken. I am cautious how and when I vaccinate my dogs and agree that more needs to be done in the area of developing safer vaccines, and, quite likely vaccinating our dogs less often for many things.

    But the thing that makes me irritated about the whole vaccination argument is that the people who cry the loudest about the evils of vaccinations are RELYING heavily on the fact that OTHERS DO vaccinate their dogs, therefore reducing the overall possibility that their own dogs will contract one of the deadly illnesses.

    (Hypothetically) It would be easy to refuse to allow my child to receive a polio vaccine, because the incidence of polio is just about nil except in a very few remote areas of the world. If I refuse to allow that vaccine, I am acknowledging that the massive worldwide vaccination program undertaken these past 20 years, have allowed me to feel comfortable in making that decision.

    If their dogs were dropping like flies every other year when a new wave of communicable disease came through, those people who are so vocal right now in the "anti-vaccination" camp may well have a different tune to sing. Especially when their whole litter of purebred pups that would have fetched $1,000-$2,500 apiece all die from a disease that they could have prevented with a shot that comes with some, but, still minimal risk.

  6. Jamie

    I work at Petsmart, that has a vet hospital, and it almost has become the running "joke" (not funny though) that we know summer has started when we get our first Parvo dog (usually beginning of april). The last few summers, our hospital alone saw anywhere from 13 to 20 Parvo cases. Some made it, some didn't. Some people paid for treatment, some signed the dog over and walked out the door (my family member adopted one of these unwanteds). I meet people every day bringing in their new puppies, 8 weeks old, placing them on the floor in the store. Then I find out they didn't have any vaccines, in which case i scoop them up and tell them to carry their dogs unless basically,in so many words, they want to kill them. I'm not a fan of over-vaccination, as i prefer titers for adult dogs, but puppies need their boosters!!

  7. Gail Tenney

    I was working a lot with the shelters in the south...I am a dog trainer in NJ but was acting as a middleperson getting these dogs help. The pups all had parvo as they do not vaccinate there, so they would just die a slow painful death with no medical care,..so even if we got rescues the dogs were all sick...so in this one "killing facility", as I don't even call them shelters, 200 dogs and cats each week are getting gassed...now how do we get the south help?

  8. Jo Ward

    There are many thoughts on the subject of vaccinating. I am all for vaccinating although I think that they can and maybe should be spread out over a slightly longer period of time to give the puppy's system time to recover from the various shots. To no vaccinate at all is asking for trouble. I also advocate doing titre testing as they get older to avoid over vaccinating.

  9. Becky

    Hi everyone. I would just like to point out that it isnt just puppies that can die from Parvo Virus! I had a 2 year old Rottweiler that i rescued and didnt realise that he had not had his injections (jabs) and unfortunately he caught Parvo. This caused him to shake uncontrollably so i contacted the vet who had no idea it was Parvo and i was told some dogs around that age can have small seizures so i should leave him in a quiet dark room and check him regularly. Which i did and he seemed fine. Just laying in his bed in the kitchen. I set my alarm during the.night to check on him and on the second check around 3am i found him to have vomited and had severe diarrhea and he had died. I was absolutely devastated and tests confirmed he had Parvo Virus. This is an awful disease and an awful way for a dog to suffer or even die. So please every dog should be vaccinated. Dont run the risk of going through what i and my dog went through that night. RIP Tyson 🙂

  10. Anna

    volunteering at a shelter and had my heart broken by the death of a little one...although my volunteer group does provide medical resources the vet thought the pup was too far gone and too compromised and the shelter protocol is immediate euhtnization to prevent spread. the sweety didn't even have a name then but is called "button" in my mind. In my facility adults iwth titers is ok, but pups can't be brought in the door without vaccinations. I also just heard of a new clenaing agent (developed at UC Davis) that is hydrogen peroxide based and is SUPPOSED to be a wnder cleaner...I am testing it out. Feel free to email me off line if you want more info on it. I have been warned that it is expensive, but better than the quads for cleaning. Here's to no more "buttons".


  11. Robin Oprysko

    My Vet and I have become more conservative with vaccines but I insist on both my dogs getting the Parvo vaccine. Both of them were older rescues and odds are they had zero vaccinations as puppies, so no immunity. I live down the street from a low cost Vet clinic, in an inner city neighborhood and people let their sick dogs use my front yard as a bathroom which terrifies me. On my street alone several dogs have died of the disease and it is incredibly nasty. This is why I do not bring my dogs to any Pet Store that has an animal hospital within, like PetSmart.

    I also have a scary PetSmart Story. concerning a 7 Week Lab, straight from the Breeders and obviously too young to be away from Mom in the first place.The poor little one was in a cart and absolutely terrified and along comes one of PetSmarts "expert" trainers, a 16 year old kid, who tells them to take the pup out of Cart and puts it on the floor, while he proceeds to feed it a treat by tossing it on the floor. There is a Vet Clinic in that store and they recently had a run on Parvo cases according to a Vet Tech friend of mine that works there! I almost had a fit and talked to the manager about the poor judgement of one of his trainers but, he really did not care at all. Sigh...

  12. colo

    I adopted my 8week old female pup from the Denver dumb Friends League last month. Not even a week after I brought her home, she was diagnosed with Parvo. Paris, my pup, had been exposed to the virus from one of her litter mates. Once I noticed the sypmtoms Paris was experiencing, I immediately rushed her back to the shelter for treatment. The vets gave her IV's and other medications to keep her hydrated and able to absorbs nutrients and liquids. I personally was never convinced to vaccinate animals before my puppy became sick. I thought vaccinations were just another scam to for vets to make a quick buck but boy was I wrong! I strongly encourage pet owners to get the necessary vaccinations to prevent deadly illnesses from taking your pets life. Vaccinations are cheap compared to outstanding medical bills. The shelter treated Paris for free since they realized they gave me a sick dog. However, the bill for treating her would have been well over 10,000.00 if I took her to her actual vet. Just do what's best for you and your pet.

  13. Brian Valdez

    I'm curious, is a dog who recently received a vaccination (thus being injected with a weakened version of the parvo virus), able to spread the virus through his feces? Also, how does this vaccination affect a dogs immune system in the sense of being able to combat other viruses/diseases than parvo?

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