Parvovirus is a highly contagious viral disease in dogs and cats, that can produce a life-threatening illness. In dogs the virus manifests in two different forms; intestinal and cardiac (heart), with the former being much more common, and the latter attacking the hearts of puppies, often causing death. Canine parvovirus is sometimes incorrectly referred to as distemper, and while there are several symptoms common to both these serious health conditions, they are different viruses.
In cats, parvovirus is more commonly referred to as panleukopaenia (because it can cause a low white blood cell count which is what panleukopaenia means).However it is not caused by the same viruses that cause distemper or parvovirus in dogs. The viruses cannot be transferred between animals and humans, and dogs cannot get parvovirus from cats, however a strain of canine parvovirus can infect cats.
Trying to understand the differences can be confusing, therefore the most important thing to remember is that all are life-threatening and a dog or cat who shows signs that they could be infected with any of these viruses requires immediate veterinary attention.
Parvovirus in dogs
Parvovirus attacks the rapidly dividing cells in a dog’s body, and affects the gastrointestinal tract the most severely. It also attacks the white blood cells, and this can cause damage to the heart muscle in young dogs. Those that survive can be left with lifelong cardiac problems.
Symptoms of Parvovirus
Parvovirus is characterised by severe vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite and bloody – and particularly offensive-smelling – diarrhoea that can lead to life-threatening dehydration.
How is it transmitted?
The virus is extremely contagious and can be transmitted by people, animals and objects that come in contact with the faeces of an infected dog. The virus can survive in the environment for months, and being highly resistant can even live on inanimate objects such floors, carpets, shoes, clothes and food bowls. Dogs commonly contract parvovirus from the streets, dog parks especially where there are many dogs such as in built-up urban areas.
Are certain dogs more susceptible?
Dogs of all ages that are not vaccinated are the most at risk of contracting parvovirus, and it affects most members of the dog family including foxes.
Parvovirus is diagnosed via clinical signs and laboratory testing. There is a common test of dogs’ stools that can be conducted in a veterinarian’s surgery, however it’s not 100% specific. For this reason, your vet may recommend bloodwork and additional testing.
Treatment of parvovirus
There is no specific anti-viral medication for parvovirus, therefore treatment consists of aggressive supportive care which includes replacing fluids and electrolytes, controlling vomiting and diarrhoea, and preventing secondary infections. The objective with treatment is to support the dog’s organs and body systems until the immune system can mount an effective response to the virus. Infected dogs should be isolated to minimise the risk of spreading infection.
Should your dog require treatment, the hospital stay can be around a week, therefore you should be prepared for a bill of which the veterinarian whill always give an estimation of the costs.. It’s important to note that treatment is not always successful, which is why vaccination is essential.
Is parvovirus preventable?
Ensuring that your dog is up to date with vaccinations is the simplest way to protect him from this potential killer. Parvovirus is a core vaccine which should be administered to all adult dogs and puppies so that robust protection is maintained for life. Australian guidelines recommend that it be administered triennially together with canine adenovirus (which causes infectious hepatitis), and canine distemper. Consult with your vet about the vaccination schedule for your dog.
Vaccination against parvovirus provides the best protection but is not 100% effective, just as in humans who still contract flu even if they’ve had a flu vaccination.
You will need to take extra care if an infected dog has been in your home – including in your garden – because the virus can live in the environment for months. Things that have been used by the infected dog such as food and water bowls, will need to be disinfected, and parvovirus can be difficult to eradicate as it is resistant to many typical disinfectants. Where organic material is not present a solution of one part bleach to 32 parts water can be used, and bowls and toys should firstly be thoroughly cleaned, and then disinfected with this solution for 10 minutes. Anything that has not or cannot be disinfected, should be discarded.
This solution is also suitable for use on the soles of your shoes in case you’ve walked through an infected area. Spraying harder to clean areas such as carpets, wood, and grass may be necessary, or alternatively they would need to be replaced.
Parvovirus in cats
Parvovirus in cats is different to the parvovirus that dogs get but the symptoms are similar. Affected cats develop acute vomiting and diarrhoea and tragically, some cats die rapidly. Severe damage to the lining of the intestine is caused by the virus which also travels in the blood to bone marrow and lymph glands, which leads to a depletion of white blood cells. Infected cats are obviously depressed, will not eat, and usually have a fever. Some die before showing signs of gastroenteritis.
How does it affect kittens?
The virus can spread to unborn kittens in an infected mother, where it can interfere with the developing brain. Kittens may consequently be born with a condition that affects the coordination of movement, and as they start to move and walk show signs of being highly uncoordinated.
How is it spread?
The virus is spread through bodily fluids and contact with faeces either by direct faecal-oral contact, or indirectly via contamination of the environment or objects such as food bowls, toys, grooming equipment, bedding, floors, hands or clothing. The disease is highly contagious and cats may be contagious two-to-three days before showing symptoms. Recovering cats can continue to excrete the virus for at least six weeks following infection. The virus can also be transmitted by dogs.
Symptoms in cats
Some older cats may not exhibit severe symptoms, but unvaccinated younger cats can become severely ill. Symptoms are similar to those of dogs and include:
- Severe vomiting
- High fever
- Sudden death in severe cases
Symptoms usually come on very suddenly, diarrhoea is usually yellow in colour, and similar to the virus in dogs, is foul smelling. The diarrhoea may lead to dehydration and shock. If your cat has symptoms of parvovirus, a trip to the vet right away is necessary.
Your vet will perform a complete physical examination, feel your cat’s abdomen to check whether lymph nodes are enlarged or intestines feel thick, and whether the abdomen is painful to the touch. Blood tests will also be conducted, including a check of white blood cell and platelet count.
Feline parvovirus treatment
As is the case with dogs, aggressive supportive care treatment with fluids to counteract dehydration, anti-emetics to stop vomiting and anti-motility drugs to stop diarrhoea will be administered. Antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent secondary bacterial infection from developing.
There is no cure for parvovirus which is why vaccination is so important. Cats usually survive if they make it through the first five days of the illness, and a full recovery can take several weeks.
The environment of an infected cat should also be treated as being infected. Items that the cat has used and come into contact with, must be disinfected with bleach and water. Follow the same directions referred to in this article for disinfecting the environment of dogs.
All cats should be vaccinated from 8-9weeks of age depending on the vaccination protocol implemented by your veterinarian. Check with your veterinarian regarding the correct vaccination schedule for your cat.
Parvovirus is a devastating disease, and arguably the greatest disease threat to dog and cat shelters and rehoming facilities. The good news is that it’s preventable with vaccination and good management practice in environments where there are infected animals. If your pet shows any signs of parvovirus, seek veterinary assistance immediately.