How Do Dogs Get Parvo? Signs, Symptoms and Treatments for Canine Parvovirus

Canine parvovirus, also known as just "parvo" or simply CPV, is a potentially life-threatening contagious intestinal disease that affects puppies.

However, adolescent and immunocompromised adult dogs are also at risk of becoming infected with the virus.

Without vaccination, canine parvovirus is approximately 90 percent fatal without treatment.

The breeds at higher risk of getting infected with parvo are considered to be Rottweilers, American pit bull terriers, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Doberman pinschers.

But the good news is parvovirus is preventable with vaccination—here is everything new dog owners need to know.

What Is Parvovirus?

Darin Collins, Chief Executive Officer of the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Health Foundation, believes unvaccinated dogs and young puppies are the most at risk.

He told Newsweek: "Canine parvovirus, or parvo, is a very contagious virus that affects all dogs, but puppies younger than four months and unvaccinated dogs are at the most risk of contracting this virus.

"Parvovirus affects a dog's gastrointestinal tract and is spread by direct contact between dogs, and contact with contaminated feces, people or environments."

The virus can also contaminate kennel surfaces, food and water bowls, collars and leashes, meaning those who are exposed to puppies should maintain a hygienic regime.

Parvovirus is resistant to heat, cold and humidity and the virus can also remain in the environment for extended periods.

Illness puppy with intravenous anything on the
Puppy with intravenous anything on the operating table in a veterinary clinic. Parvo is capable of causing dogs distress kozorog/Getty Images

Signs and Symptoms Of Parvovirus

There are several unpleasant signs this debilitating virus has taken hold of your dog, but fortunately, these are easily visible for those who know what to look for.

The AKC's Collins said: "Parvo is potentially very serious and can cause life-threatening complications.

"If your puppy or dog shows any of the following signs or symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately. "

  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Fever or low body temperature
  • Vomiting
  • Severe diarrhea that is bloody

The highly contagious virus usually has a week long incubation period before symptoms appear, but this can be as short as three days.

Canine parvovirus
A veterinarian injects 5 in 1 vaccine into the back of an uneasy Lhasa Apso puppy at a local clinic. Parvovirus is preventable with vaccination. Iryna Imago/Getty Images

Parvovirus Treatment

With Parvovirus prevention, and failing that — acting fast is key.

The AKC said: "For those dogs unvaccinated, early detection and aggressive treatment are integral parts of a dog's survival of parvovirus."

"Since the virus is so contagious, dogs who are suspected or known to have parvo should immediately be isolated. There is no specific medication available that will kill the virus. Dogs with parvo should be kept warm as well," The AKC said.

Treatment involves managing the dog's symptoms until their immune system can fight off the viral infection. This should be started immediately and consists of intensive care efforts to combat dehydration by replacing electrolyte, protein and fluid losses, controlling vomiting and diarrhea, and preventing secondary infections.

The AKC said pet owners must not delay as: "Dehydration can happen quickly with the rapid onset of the vomiting and diarrhea."

"The virus weakens a dog's immune system, reducing his/her ability to fight off secondary infections, so veterinarians will monitor and put an infected dog on antibiotics to fight these other infections."

A mixed breed puppy with parvovirosis
A mixed breed puppy with parvovirosis at the veterinary clinic. Todorean Gabriel/Getty Images