How dogs get parvo (and how to protect yours)

January 27, 2024 - 4 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM on January 26, 2024 . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

How do dogs get Parvo

What's parvo?

Canine parvovirus (aka "parvo") is a highly contagious virus that can be deadly for dogs.

Research indicates that dogs are susceptible to two types of parvoviruses: CPV-2, a highly pathogenic virus often causing severe intestinal disease, and CPV-1, also known as the minute virus of canines.

CPV-2 is much more common and dangerous; its mortality rate may be greater than 90%  when dogs are left untreated. We’ll be talking about CPV-2 in this article.

The fear surrounding parvo is requited. It's a stealth invasion that can take out dogs (especially puppies) with ruthless efficiency. But fear not! Understanding the enemy is the first step in effective defense.

How does parvo spread in dogs?

This virus loves to travel; it's a bit of a jet-setter. It hitchhikes on shoes, clothes, and even other dogs. The virus can survive on surfaces and in the soil for months, waiting for its next unsuspecting victim. That means that every time you take an unvaccinated puppy out for a potty break, there's a risk that parvovirus might be lurking.

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Where does parvo live?

puppy pitbull mix looks out of cage at potential adopter, shoulder and head visible

Dog parks, kennels, and shelters—any place where lots of dogs congregate—are parvovirus's favorite vacation spots. This is why it's especially crucial to make sure to start your dog's vaccinations before boarding or getting too social.

Parvo symptoms in dogs

Parvo in dogs and puppies is a serious condition marked by several distinct symptoms. Call your vet ASAP if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  1. Vomiting and diarrhea: Often, severe and bloody vomit and diarrhea are the hallmark symptoms of parvo. It's crucial to note any change in the consistency and color of the stool or vomit, as these can be early signs of trouble.

  2. Lethargy: Affected dogs display a noticeable lack of energy. They may seem unusually tired and uninterested in activities they normally enjoy.

  3. Loss of appetite: Refusal to eat or a sudden decrease in appetite is a common early sign.

  4. Fever: A higher than normal body temperature often accompanies parvo.

  5. Dehydration: Due to vomiting and diarrhea, dogs can quickly become dehydrated. Signs include a dry nose, sunken eyes, and a loss of skin elasticity.

  6. Weight loss: Rapid weight loss may occur, particularly in puppies.

  7. Weakness and collapse: In severe cases, the dog might experience extreme weakness or even collapse.

Most of the signs associated with parvo involve the digestive tract. However, the virus can also attack the heart muscle (especially in very young puppies) and the bone marrow, which hinders the immune system and makes it hard for dogs to fight off the virus.

If you suspect your dog or puppy is showing symptoms of parvo (or any of these symptoms that could indicate another serious condition is present), it's essential to consult a veterinarian immediately. Early intervention can be the difference between life and death, which is why you should also never attempt to treat a dog with parvo on your own.

How do vets treat parvo?

When a dog faces the challenge of parvovirus, veterinarians turn to a multi-faceted treatment strategy. Historically, there's never been a direct treatment option, but the new Canine Parvovirus Monoclonal Antibody is promising.

Generally, here are some of the treatments you might see:

  • Fluid therapy is the backbone of treatment, combating dehydration and maintaining essential electrolyte balance. Many cases require intravenous fluids (fluids given directly into a vein), but subcutaneous fluids (fluids given under the skin) can sometimes be an option.

  • Anti-nausea medications and antibiotics are introduced. While the former eases vomiting, a common symptom, the latter wards off or treats secondary bacterial infections. Nutritional support is also key, ensuring the dog has the energy to fight the virus and doesn’t become hypoglycemic.

  • Pain management and close monitoring round off the treatment, providing comfort and enabling timely responses to any changes in the dog's condition. Other therapies may also be necessary, depending on the specifics of a dog’s case.

Treatment of parvovirus can cost up to $2,500. The fatality rate for dogs acquiring parvovirus who are unvaccinated, improperly vaccinated, or have lapsed vaccinations can be greater than 90% when untreated, which means it's extra important to be vigilant and even consider getting good dog insurance in case a pricey illness like this strikes.

Which dogs are most at risk of getting parvo?

newborn baby wrapped in pink blanket

Puppies are the most vulnerable to this viral villain, particularly those between six weeks and six months old. Their immune systems are like apprentices, still learning the ropes, and they often have not completed their vaccination series.

Older dogs, while not invincible, often have a stronger shield in the form of a mature immune system, especially if they have been vaccinated.

Are some breeds more prone to contracting parvo?

Rottweiler standing

While parvo doesn't discriminate, the American Veterinary Medical Association notes certain breeds are more prone to contracting the illness:

We aren't exactly sure why these breeds seem to have a "Welcome" sign that they can't take down.

How to protect your dog from getting Parvo

Studies have shown that the parvo vaccine is essential for protecting your dog. And for puppies, decreasing exposure to the virus is KEY.

Vaccination, along with limiting exposure in young puppies, is the most effective means of preventing parvoviral enteritis in dogs.

Vaccination is like enlisting your pup in a martial arts class specifically designed to beat parvo. This training—I mean, vaccination schedule—starts at six to eight weeks of age and continues until they're about 16 weeks old. Boosters? Absolutely—every two to four weeks. Think of them as advanced training sessions to keep their skills sharp until their immune system has a chance to respond.

Unvaccinated dogs who are more than 16 weeks old need at least two doses of a parvovirus vaccine, two to four weeks apart. Most dogs are then boosted at one year of age and then every three years thereafter.

Here are some other steps you can take to minimize the risk of your dog contracting parvo:

1. Sanitize and secure: Keep your living area cleaner than a dog's dinner plate. Regular disinfection, especially with bleach-based products, can send parvo packing.

2. Puppy playdates? Proceed with caution. Socializing your puppy is necessary, but do it in controlled environments and with healthy dogs who are up-to-date on their vaccines. Avoid areas frequented by many dogs until your pup's vaccination series is complete.

3. Regular vet visits: Regular check-ups are like having a personal coach for your dog's health—invaluable in spotting and thwarting potential health threats.

4. Proper nutrition and care: A well-fed and cared-for dog is like a well-maintained fortress. It's tougher for invaders (like parvo) to breach those walls.

In a nutshell

Parvo is a formidable foe, but with knowledge, vigilance, and a solid plan (vaccinations, cleanliness, and mindful socialization), your dog can stand tall and safe against this invisible enemy.

Remember, in the battle against parvo, you and your vet are the ultimate dream team! And what else can help? A great dog insurance. It's designed to help you pay for unexpected accidents and illnesses (like parvo).*

*pre-existing conditions excluded. See your policy for details.

Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.