Recent Parvo Outbreaks Worries Dog Community

Anastasia was the perfect family pet. Named after the famed Russian princess, the miniature schnauzer puppy was eagerly welcomed into the Barrett family, joining them on vacations, errands and car rides.

Now they are mourning her loss. Anastasia, or Annie as they called her, was about a year old when she died this summer of canine parvovirus, a highly contagious disease.

Veterinarians, animal shelters and health departments across the country labor each year to warn dog owners of the disease, but a combination of misinformation, inadequate or absent vaccinations, and economic factors leaves thousands of dogs suffering from the often fatal virus.

Several areas have reported outbreaks of the disease in the last couple of months, though experts say there is no reason for widespread panic.

The Basics of Parvo

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Ronald Schultz is a professor and chair of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine's pathobiological sciences department in Madison. He's also one of the nation's leading experts on vaccines.

"We believe that every puppy should receive what we call the core vaccines," he told ABCNews.com. "And parvo is one of the cores."

Parvovirus is most often spread by fecal contamination. A dog can trounce over the infection during a walk or a romp in the park, come home and lick its paws, and become infected. The virus, which can also be spread on everything from a person's shoes to bird feet, can live in soil for at least a year, Schultz said, adding that he's seen anecdotal evidence of up to three years.

Classic symptoms include lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea.

The disease initially enters the body through the lymphatic system and moves into other cells, eventually settling in the gastro-intestinal tract where it causes "tremendous" death of the cells in the lining of the intestines, he said. The virus shuts down the cells' ability to create new cells, and the animal loses the ability to absorb nutrients and fluid.

So the dog doesn't die from the actual virus, but from the resulting dehydration and malnutrition, Schultz explained. Sometimes death is caused by shock. And while fluids and antibiotics to cure secondary infections can help, that treatment is sometimes just not enough especially if the dog has been ill for a couple of days.

"It's fairly acute," he said.

A new strain of canine parvovirus, known as CPV-2c, is fatal in 75 percent to 100 percent of cases in dogs under a year old when only basic fluids are given as treatment, he said.

Canine parvovirus cannot be transmitted to other species, though each has its own version of the disease. Human parvovirus is better known as Fifth's Disease. Canine parvovirus, he said, shares the common properties with the feline, mink and raccoon versions of the disease.

Isolated Outbreaks

The Humane Society of Elkhart County, located in Bristol, Ind., about an hour east of Chicago, has seen a steep increase in parvo cases in the last two months.

About 15 dogs have died, executive director Eric Durcinka said, some of them left in the shelter's overnight drop boxes that are intended for healthy abandoned animals not dogs that are sick and dying.

Durcinka said shelter workers have found six dogs that were already dead when they found them in the drop box and another three or four that died later. The drop box is last checked for the night around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., and then again around 7 a.m. the next day.

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