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Two rottweiler puppies looking through a fence.

Pet owners know that their beloved furry companions are susceptible to various health problems, ranging from heart murmurs to parasites to contagious diseases. But for dogs and puppies, in particular, there is one diagnosis that is the last thing any pet parent wants to hear — that of parvovirus.

According to Dr. Michael Hung, a second-year internal medicine resident at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, canine parvovirus, also known as parvo, is one of the most fatal viruses a dog can contract.

“Parvovirus is the world’s most common canine infectious disease,” Hung explained. “This is a viral infection that is well-known for its contagiousness and severe damage to the intestines, particularly among puppies. It causes serious diarrhea at its best and life-threatening shock at its worst.”

Because it is highly contagious, canine parvovirus can quickly jump from dog to dog. The virus typically enters through a dog’s nose or mouth and is shed through saliva or diarrhea.

The parvovirus is not airborne, but nearly all surfaces can carry it, including human skin. After an individual has been exposed to the disease, an infestation can occur on the ground, on surfaces in kennels, on their hands and on their clothing. A dog can also carry contaminated fecal material on its fur or paws.

Because of this, if an owner comes into contact with a dog suspected to have parvo, they should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water to further prevent the spread. Disinfectants are necessary for cleaning toys, clothes and cages.

“The virus can be found anywhere worldwide and year-round, but this infection seems to be more common in the summer months and warm/humid environments,” Hung said. “The virus can persist in most environments, but dogs are more at risk in heavily trafficked locations like dog parks and boarding facilities.”

Unfortunately, puppies between 6 weeks and 6 months have a high susceptibility to illnesses because their immune systems have not yet fully developed.

However, parvovirus is also very preventable with proper vaccinations. While there is little debate on why the parvo vaccine is a core vaccination for puppies and dogs, there are some concerns on whether feed-store vaccines are reliable and effective.

“Vaccines require appropriate administration, storage and verification of good health of the patient for which it is intended,” Hung said. “Veterinary personnel are specifically trained to ensure that the appropriate requirements are met and can give dependable proof of vaccination.

“Furthermore, if something happened to go wrong with the vaccination (i.e., vaccine failure or vaccine reaction), veterinary personnel can also make sure that your pet gets the attention or help it needs,” he said.

Although the highly effective parvovirus vaccine has reduced the risk of this disease, it is still widely prevalent, so owners should watch out for the common signs of parvo. These include vomiting, lethargy, inappetence, abdominal pain, fever and bloody diarrhea.

“Parvovirus infection absolutely requires veterinary attention and support. If your dog is diagnosed with parvovirus, it should be kept separate from other dogs until it has been treated and has recovered,” Hung said. “Owners with parvovirus-infected dogs should also be wary of their property and clothing so they do not spread the virus unknowingly to other owners and their dogs.”

Parvo is a severe and highly contagious disease. Nevertheless, understanding how it spreads, the symptoms, the treatment options and the best ways to prevent it will help you keep your four-pawed friends safe.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

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