Recent Parvo Outbreaks Worries Dog Community

Experts say vaccines are critical to fight canine parvo.

Sept. 22, 2008— -- 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

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 "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.

Another four of five dogs were brought into the shelter directly, he said. Of all those cases, one dog survived after being taken home by a Good Samaritan who wanted to nurse it back to health.

"I've never seen numbers like this in such a short amount of time, especially dogs that are coming in in such an advanced stage," Durcinka said, adding that this unsettling outbreak tells him there's something going on in the community.

Bad Economy Leads to Less Vet Care

Durcinka said they've already taken in 1,000 more dogs this year above the 11,000 in 2007. As the economy worsens, dog owners can't appropriately care for their animals and aren't vigilant about getting their dogs vaccinated.

While some owners are truly ignorant, leaving the dogs alone in a drop box to die a painful death, he said, is cruel.

"You just stand there and wonder why they've let this go," he said.

In response, the shelter shut down the night boxes for a week earlier this month to disinfect the area and post signs about parvo and the guidelines for using the boxes. When it re-opened it was filled mostly with cats.

Luckily, he said, the shelter has not had an outbreak among the 70 dogs currently waiting for adoption. If an animal is even suspected of having the disease, it is immediately moved into a quarantine area.

The disease is so feared there have been reports of closures in recent weeks at dogs parks, pet stores and shelters across the country, some in instances where just one case was reported.

The dog pound owned by the Rochester, Minn., police department has been shuttered while they deal with ongoing cases of parvo.

Sgt. John Laivell said it started when two stray puppies were picked up on Sept. 11. One was found dead the next morning, the other died on Sept. 13. Two more dogs, also found to have parvo, were put down shortly after.

All remaining dogs were vaccinated and tested, and officers thought they were in the clear, gearing up to re-open the shelter today, after intense disinfecting of the area.

But on Thursday, another dog came down with symptoms, tested positive and was put down Friday. The shelter's opening has now been pushed back to Sept. 29 with no dogs coming in or going out until then.

Laivell said they hope the disease is under control now. Private shelters have been taking in animals that the pound normally would have accepted.

"Local shelters are always full and now they're even more full," he said.

Laivell, who also stressed the importance of proper vaccination, said this is the first time he's seen the disease at the pound in five years supervising it. And because the department has limited funds, they can't do more than test and vaccinate and then euthanize any affected dogs.

Cheap Vaccine, Costly Treatment

Dr. Rebekah Frost, a veterinarian at the Dunkirk Animal Clinic in upstate New York, said she, too, has seen an increase in parvo cases. She also listed the economy as a cause for the spike.

"A lot of people in our area don't understand," she said of the importance of vaccinating dogs.

The clinic, located about an hour south of Buffalo near Lake Erie, has diagnosed five cases and has talked to another 20 or 30 people over the phone in the last two months. Most of the cases were in very young or elderly dogs.

And it's not cheap to treat a parvo dog. Frost said the estimate to clients is between $500 and $1,500 depending on the severity of the case and how long the dog needs to be hospitalized. A vaccine costs fractions of that.

Schultz has stirred controversy in the veterinary industry by releasing studies that show a dog needs only its initial vaccines as a puppy to creates immunity for life. But they must be administered properly.

"But a lot of people aren't comfortable with that," he said. "They've been so conditioned into this annual vaccination."

Not so long ago, the majority of vets were giving what he called the core canine vaccines -- parvo, distemper, adenovirus and rabies -- every year. In recent years, thanks in part to the American Animal Hospital Association recommendations that Schultz helped write, the tendency has changed to give the vaccines once every three years. Rabies is the only vaccine mandated by law.

Continually vaccinating throughout a dog's life, he said, gives owners the false security that they are "boosting" the dog's immunity and gives more money to the companies that manufacture the vaccines.

Puppies should have a minimum of three core vaccinations with the last one coming between 14 and 16 weeks of age, Schultz said.

And while the U.S. has one of the highest rates of animal vaccination in the world, he said, shelter data shows that only 50 percent of puppies and 25 percent of kittens are given their shots.

The Barrett family was vigilant about Annie's care. At their usual veterinarian's office, they were sent home with a list of needed subsequent shots and dates, but when the Barretts tried out a new vet in town, they didn't have the same system.

Perry Barrett said he wasn't with his wife when she took the miniature schnauzer in for another round of vaccinations, but unbeknownst to him, a communication breakdown meant the dog was sent home without another parvo vaccine, something the vet later said he recommended doing at a separate visit.

So when Annie, who the Barretts and their two children had taken on trips to the mountains and the beach, fell sick in late July, Barrett said he didn't even consider parvo.

He waited a day or two before bringing her in, something he now knows may have cost the family's beloved pet her life. Because he worked from home all day, Barrett asked the veterinarian if he could treat Annie from home with fluids and antibiotics. Three days later, Annie died.

"The disease is horrible," he said. "Unless you've seen it, you can't imagine how horrible it is."

And it's not easy to get rid of. Experts say the most effective way to disinfect an area after parvo contamination is bleach: inside and outside the home.

The Barretts went further. They took their furniture to the dump and threw out all their bedding. And they sold their house.

"We were looking anyway, but it accelerated out decision," Perry Barrett said.

They are now owners of a Yorkie puppy, given to the family by an area breeder after they returned one of his dogs they found lost by the side of the road. But they still miss Annie.

"Everybody was completely distraught," he said. "You start second-guessing yourself."

Containing the Disease

Canine parvovirus originated in the United States and was identified in a College Station, Texas, laboratory in 1978. During the peak period between 1978 and 1982, more than a million dogs perished, Schultz said. Within six months of the first case of canine parvovirus, the disease had spread to six continents.

The disease, he said, was caused by a mutation of the feline version of parvo, known as feline panleukopenia, a disease that was reported in accounts from ancient Egypt.

Since then, canine parvovirus has slowly declined to a point where cases are holding steady with minor inflations on occasion.

There's no inflation being seen right now in the U.S.

"What we happen to be in is a little paranoia," Schultz said.

And the cause of that is the new virulent strain of parvo, the CPV-2c. That strain originated in Europe back in 2001 with the first reported U.S. case in late 2005 or early 2006, he said.

But while there was some initial dissention among researchers, it has been proven, Schultz said, that the vaccines created for the earlier mutations of the canine parvovirus will protect against CPV-2c.

Schultz said middle-aged or young adult dogs have the best chance of fighting every strain of the disease. But even dogs whose immune system fights the virus before it shows symptoms can still shed the disease in its excrement.

Dogs that get the disease fall into three categories, he said: those that have never been vaccinated and those who got their vaccinations prior to that 14- to 16-week mark for the final shot. In the third category, he said, are dogs that are genetically incapable of responding to the vaccination.

That occurs in 1 per 1,000 dogs, he said. When the virus was ravaging the canine population in the late 1970s and early '80s, those "nonresponders" were often most prominent in several breeds, notably Dobermans and rottweilers, he said.

But as "Mother Nature" took its course and eliminated those genes when the puppies died of the virus, the "nonresponders" are typically seen in individual families of a variety of breeds.

A Hard Lesson

Josh Estep said his 14-week-old pitbull puppy had just received his last set of shots when he started acting lethargic. When Estep noticed on Sept. 2 that the dog had worms, the puppy, Silas, went to the Dunkirk Animal Clinic in upstate New York.

Estep said he received a call from his sobbing girlfriend that Silas indeed had worms -- and parvo, a diagnosis that shocked Estep who had been warned of the disease by his aunt and uncle, who had bred German shepherds.

"He was my little buddy," he said.

Estep said that when Silas was given a 20 percent chance of surviving the night, he and his girlfriend took Silas home to make him comfortable. For 36 hours, Estep stayed awake with Silas, adjusting his IV and feeding him.

On Sept. 4, Silas began bleeding internally, and Estep rushed him back to the clinic to be euthanized. His adult female pitbull, he said, has since been tested numerous times for the disease and all have come back negative.

Estep cautions other pet owners not to take their dogs for granted and to appreciate them.

"Just stay on top of everything," he said, wishing he had heeded his own advice. "At the first sign of anything, get [your dog] right to the vet."