Parvo myths (and the truth)


The canine parvovirus (CPV) is a serious and contagious virus in the parvovirus family which affects the stomach and small intestines of canines, causing diarrhoea. In puppies it can also damage bone marrow and lymphatic tissue, which then impacts on the immune system, and, in some cases, can cause heart damage. Untreated, particularly in puppies, infected dogs can die rapidly and painfully. There is no cure so, in this case, prevention is crucial. 

These are some of the outdated, incorrect myths about this virus that need to be dispelled.

Myth: Only puppies get parvo

Reality: Dogs of any age can get infected with CPV. However, because puppies have immature immune systems and smaller bodies, they are generally more easily infected and get much sicker than adults. Adult dogs that catch it may have such mild symptoms that nobody even notices they’re sick – but they can still pass it on.

Myth: Parvo is caused by cats

Reality: We really dislike the term ‘cat flu’ or ‘katgriep’ because it makes people think that cats will make their dog or puppy sick. This can make misguided people chase away, hurt, or kill cats. Let’s be clear: PARVO IS NOT CAUSED BY CATS.

It is called this because its symptoms resemble a disease which occurs in cats and it is thought to originally (pre-1960s) have mutated from a disease affecting cats; it is no longer the same virus. The illness which resembles canine parvovirus is called feline panleukopaenia (in some countries called feline distemper) and it is caused by the feline parvovirus (FPV). 

There are several viruses in the parvovirus (parvoviridae) family, some of which affect humans, while others affect animals. Just like we cannot catch canine parvovirus because we are not canines, dogs cannot catch feline parvovirus because they are not felines. Remember that, just because a virus has mutated from something, does not make it the same as the original.

Note that in other countries, cat flu refers to a condition which causes an upper respiratory infection – we call this ‘snuffles’ – and which is totally unrelated to parvovirus.

Myth: I vaccinated my puppy once so he can’t get parvo.

Reality: One vaccine is not going to protect them fully. First puppy vaccinations provide a very small measure of protection but it is not complete and the little protection it offers wears off after a few weeks, hence the need for boosters.

To get full protection, your puppy needs 3 vaccinations: at 6 – 8 weeks, another 4 weeks after that, and another one 4 weeks later. At 12 months, they need another vaccination. They will then be protected for at least 1 year but, like many vaccinations, immunity does wear off. To keep this protection up, they need regular vaccinations. There is controversy over how frequent these vaccinations should be but the general recommendation is that it is every one to three years – your vet can best advise you.  

Think of it like painting a house: you need more than just one coat to protect the walls from the elements and regular maintenance to keep the paint intact.

Myth: I don’t take my dog out so it can’t catch parvo.

Reality: The CPV can stay in the soil for many years. This means that it can be transported to your dog on shoes, car tyres, toys, etc. Even if neither you nor your dog ever leave the house, people visiting could have interacted with a sick dog or trodden in contaminated soil, and bring the virus into your house that way. This is why vaccinations, good hygiene, and excellent overall care of your dog are so important.

Myth: Vaccinating a dog which is already showing symptoms of parvo will cure it.

Reality:  Sadly, this is not true. Vaccinations work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies to the pathogen (a disease-causing organism), a process which does not happen immediately.

CPV affects rapidly-dividing cells, such as those in the intestinal lining, as well as the immune system. By the time your dog shows signs of the virus, it’s way too late to vaccinate as the immune system is not working properly and, therefore, cannot develop the needed antibodies fast enough to get rid of the virus.

It is best not to vaccinate an animal (or human, for that matter) for anything when they have signs of illness.

Myth: Parvo only occurs at certain times of year.

Reality: Parvo is most often seen during the warm seasons but this does not mean that the virus is gone during the rest of the year. The CP virus can live in soil for a long time – at least 6 to 9 months but, potentially, years. In other words, it is always in the environment. Very cold weather, such as snow, can cause it to become dormant but this doesn’t kill the virus; as soon as the weather warms up, the virus can proliferate. Additionally, when it is warmer, we tend to walk our dogs more, which means that there is a greater chance that they may come into contact with infected dogs or their faeces.

At FAW, we frequently see parvo in autumn when a combination of rainy spells (which wash the virus out of soil where it was hiding) interspersed with warm days create the right conditions for it to proliferate. Additionally, many of the areas we work in have homes with cramped yards, little sunshine, poor drainage, and standing dirty water, all of which provides ample places for pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and parasites to proliferate. 

Myth: Vaccines don’t work.

Reality: No vaccine is always 100% failsafe. Many things can affect vaccine efficacy, including the animal’s immune system, whether it was still receiving antibodies from its mother (usually if vaccinating very young, unweaned pups but the effect can last as long as 16 weeks), the viral load in the environment, and how the vaccine was stored and administered.

Puppies should be allowed to nurse from their mother from birth until at least 8 weeks of age, when they should get their first vaccination. If they are taken away too soon or have been orphaned, they should be vaccinated at around 6 weeks. They need 2 more CPV vaccines at 4-weekly intervals after that, and another at 12 months.

It is important to get your puppy vaccinated at a reputable veterinary practice or clinic which carefully observes cold-chain protocols and has been trained to give vaccines.

Myth: The puppies are still nursing from their mother so they can’t get parvo.

Reality: You are correct that puppies do receive some immunity from their mother’s milk. However, it only lasts for the first six weeks (if they are nursing), and it is not complete protection. Additionally, if the mother has never been exposed to CPV or received a vaccine, this protection will be less (her antibodies are dependent on her previous exposure or vaccination status). Indeed, we often see cases of very young, unweaned puppies that are still with their mother, which have developed parvo, distemper, and other infections.

After the pups reach 6 weeks of age, even if they are still nursing, the small amount of protection decreases. This is why it is so important to observe good hygiene when you have puppies, whether they’re with their mother or not.

Myth: You can cure parvo with [insert bizarre home remedy here]

Reality: There is no cure for canine parvovirus. There are many home remedies out there claiming to cure it, many of which are downright dangerous. (We recommend reading our article about how parvo works so that you can understand why these things will not cure it. )

If a dog or puppy has parvo, all that can be done is to provide supportive treatment, which includes prescribed veterinary medication for pain and nausea, and keeping the dog hydrated (a drip is sometimes needed in severe cases). Puppies can die (very painfully) within hours if you do not get the right treatment, mainly due to severe dehydration and shock. Do not delay – take your puppy to the vet if you think they have parvo!

DO NOT USE Lennon’s Jamaika Gemmer, Panado Syrup, Dettol*, blousel** (aka copper sulphate, blue vitriol, blouvieterjoel, reckitts blue), milk, cooking oil, salt, raw eggs, raw chicken liver, or any of the other ridiculous and potentially deadly home remedies.

*Dettol contains phenol chloroxylenol, which is very toxic for dogs and potentially deadly for cats.

** Blousel is for bleaching clothes and killing things in the garden. It should never be ingested by animals or humans, no matter how effective your friend’s aunty’s, great-grandmother swears by it. It is POISONOUS. 

The bottom line is this: there is no cure for parvo; there are only preventative measures and supportive treatment if they do get it. Supportive treatment is not always succesful and can run into the tens of thousands of Rands. Therefore, prevention is the cheapest and best thing you can do to help your canine companion.

This includes vaccinations, observing good hygiene, not taking unvaccinated puppies out, and feeding a good-quality diet so that overall health is strong, thus improving disease resistance. 

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