I’ve been doing lots of shelter work lately. Caring for cats and dogs who have been relinquished to shelters poses unique challenges and rewards. Because this is often a forgotten or neglected group of animals, their problems can be myriad. Many are old, some have chronic illnesses, most are malnourished and they all are susceptible to disease.
Parvoviral enteritis is one challenge that can be devastating for shelter animals. Vets start to see parvo in the spring and it continues its ugly march throughout the summer. This is one example of the seasonality of certain diseases. The virus flourishes in warmer, wetter conditions, and many puppies are born in the springtime. Since parvo affects mostly puppies, the months of April thru August are prime parvo time. Parvovirus causes severe vomiting and diarrhea,
marked dehydration and weakness. Affected puppies become very, very sick. Because the virus damages the intestinal tract, bacteria–normally E. coli, can invade the bloodstream, causing a life-threatening sepsis. Many young pups succumb to the disease. The virus is highly contagious, and unfortunately is hardy in the environment. Regular household disinfectants won’t kill it, and it can overwinter in the soil despite freezing temperatures.
In a shelter situation, the presence of parvo can be catastrophic. The first concern is that the disease’s incubation period is 5-10 days. That means a pup can be ‘brewing ‘ the virus before becoming clinically ill. By that time, that individual may have infected cage mates, or personnel handling that pup may have unwittingly spread the virus to other puppies. Also, the virus will stay alive in food or water bowls which could potentially pass the virus further. Treatment consists of good supportive nursing care as there are no antiviral drugs. Copious amounts of intravenous fluids, antibiotics, antiemetics and agents to protect the damaged gastrointestinal tract are given. This intensive care usually lasts 5-7 days. The virus is shed in saliva as well as feces so strict quarantine must be enforced for sick or susceptible animals. And shelter staff who contact those dogs must practice a specific sanitary protocol including donning gowns, masks, and protective footwear when treating a sick pup. Everything which comes in contact with a sick animal must be disinfected or destroyed.
It is not just shelter puppies that are in danger. Any very young or poorly vaccinated puppy is susceptible to parvo, but Dobermans, pit bulls and Rottweilers demonstrate an increased risk for the disease. This is strictly a canine illness; cats don’t get parvoviral enteritis, and it is not spread to humans. The only good news about parvo is that once recovered, a dog will never get it again. The immune system builds strong and lasting protection. Yet the cost of the disease is high. Parvo is an expensive disease to treat, and many shelters cannot bear the expense of treating whole litters or shipments of puppies. The emotional toll is great as well. People who work in shelters do so because they love animals. To see puppies get sick and die is devastating for everyone.
The best way to protect against parvo is through vaccination. The recommended schedule is to vaccinate at 6, 9, 12, and 15 weeks of age. Also, the annual vaccine given to adult dogs contains a parvo fraction. It is possible, though uncommon, for adult dogs to contract parvo disease.