Parvo In Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

By Chyrle Bonk, DVM March 05, 2020

If you were to poll a group of dog parents about what diseases affect dogs, parvo would be at the top of the list. Parvo is a widely known and feared illness among our canine companions, but it doesn’t need to be that way. There are many things you can do to prevent parvo and recognize the early signs in order to speed up treatment and recovery. So, let’s get into the details.

What Is Parvo?

Parvo is a viral disease caused by an infection with the canine parvovirus. Parvo is highly contagious and can show up in one of two ways. The most common form of parvo is the one we all think of that affects the digestive system causing diarrhea and vomiting. But a parvovirus infection can also attack the heart muscles, causing death of fetuses and very young puppies.

How Do Dogs Get Parvo?

One of the main problems with parvo is that it is so contagious. Parvo can be spread through direct contact with a sick dog or even those that have been exposed but haven’t come down with any symptoms yet. Parvo can also be spread through the fecal-oral route meaning your pup can pick it up by nosing around in infected feces, something that all dogs are known to do from time to time. Parvo is tricky in that it can be spread in feces before an infected dog even starts showing symptoms. Moreover, the disease can be spread for nearly a week and a half after recovery. That’s a large window of time for a dog to potentially infect other dogs, and for your pup to catch parvo without you knowing.

Parvovirus can also live in the soil for up to a year. That means that even once the infected feces are gone, the nasty little virus can still be lingering there causing infection if there is a high enough concentration. You can also carry parvo around on your shoes or other clothing that comes in contact with infected material. Always be sure to clean and disinfect your clothing and shoes with bleach if you come in contact with a sick pup or after going to the dog park or other areas where dogs congregate.

What Dogs Are Most At Risk For Parvo?

Unvaccinated or improperly vaccinated dogs of all ages are most at risk. Young puppies between the ages of six weeks and six months are at the greatest risk due to vaccination status and immune system development. It also seems that the older the dogs get, the less severe the symptoms and the quicker the recovery due to the body’s ability to better handle the infection. Certain breeds like Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Pit Bulls, and Doberman Pinschers are also at an increased risk for unknown reasons.

Is Parvo Contagious To Humans Or Other Animals?

No. Parvo is a disease that people can get, however it is not the same virus that infects dogs. The causing viruses are in the same family, but not transferrable between you and your dog. The same holds true for cats. Cats get a form of parvovirus that causes feline panleukopenia. Again, it is not the same virus that causes parvo in dogs, so it is not contagious between your kitty and puppy. However, parvo is contagious to other canines, such as coyotes, wolves and other wild dogs.

What Are the Symptoms Of Parvo In Dogs?

Now that you know the who’s and how’s of parvo, what about the what’s? Recognizing the signs and symptoms of parvo will help you catch the disease early and give your pup the best chance for recovery.

  • Diarrhea
    The most distinct symptom of parvo is severe diarrhea. It may be bloody as the virus attacks the lining of the intestines. It may also develop a tell-tale fetid odor that once you smell, you can’t forget.
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy, weakness, depression
  • Fever
  • Anorexia and weight loss
  • Dehydration
    With severe vomiting and diarrhea, it doesn’t take long for a pup to become dehydrated, especially little puppy bodies.

What Are the Stages of Parvo In Dogs?

A parvovirus infection isn’t as simple as exposure, sickness, then recovery. There are a few stages that give you ample opportunity to intervene. Following exposure to the virus, parvo replicates in the lymph nodes of the intestine and potentially the bone marrow for about a week. The virus attacks rapidly replicating cells in the lining of the intestine and the bone marrow. Five to seven days following exposure, dogs may become lethargic, weak, or depressed. Their appetite will drop or go away completely. Then they will break with diarrhea as the virus attacks that intestinal lining. Vomiting may soon follow with dehydration occurring if left untreated.

As the disease progresses, the bone marrow can become infected causing panleukopenia, or a overall decrease in white blood cells. This makes it even harder for the immune system to fight the disease and can lead to secondary infections or septicemia, an infection of the blood.

How Is Parvo In Dogs Treated?

You can see that parvo has a nasty progression if left untreated, that’s why early intervention is the best way to go. Since parvo is a virus, there are no specific medications that will treat it. Supportive treatment is the key and that includes intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration, antibiotics to prevent secondary infections, and antiemetics to decrease vomiting. It takes several days for a dog to recover to the point where they’ll want to eat. However, most puppy can’t go that long without nutrition, so some form of nutritional supplementation should be provided as well.

Dehydration and secondary infections are the most concerning symptoms with parvo, so preventing them should have the greatest priorities.

Are There At-Home Remedies For Parvo?

The treatment for parvo should only be attempted in very mild adult cases. For puppies or more severe cases of parvo, conditions can go from bad to worse in a very short time, so it’s important to get a veterinarian involved. You also shouldn’t attempt treatment at home unless under the supervision of a veterinarian.

For dogs with only mild vomiting or diarrhea, you can try supportive care at home by offering a small amount of water or ice frequently throughout the day. Avoid giving large amounts at once as that can actually make the vomiting worse. You can also offer small amounts of bland food, such as boiled chicken and rice, frequently as long as it doesn’t cause vomiting.

Be sure to quarantine any sick dogs and disinfect the areas that they have been in with a strong bleach solution. Don’t wear the same shoes or clothes around healthy dogs that you did with the sick dogs and wash your hands well.

Again, parvo can be a very serious illness in dogs that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Don’t attempt to treat at home unless under the advisement of a veterinarian.

When Should Your Dog See A Vet With Parvo?

With the dangers that come with waiting, see a vet as soon as possible if you suspect parvo in your dog. Even if you don’t suspect parvo, most dog parents will choose to see a vet anytime their dog has severe diarrhea or is lethargic and hasn’t eaten for a few days. You may also choose to see your vet if your dog knowingly came in contact with a sick dog, even before they start showing symptoms. Of course, you should see your vet for regular vaccinations to prevent a parvo infection in the first place.

How Can Parvo Be Prevented?

Prevention of parvo is two-fold: vaccination and avoidance. Parvo vaccinations should be given to healthy puppies between six and eight weeks of age, with boosters at 12 and 16 weeks. Parvo vaccinations should then be given yearly or every three years depending on your dog’s lifestyle and exposure risk.

On the avoidance side, vaccinated dogs fair better when exposed to parvo than those that are unvaccinated. Avoiding areas where your unvaccinated pup could come in contact with infected dogs or feces is important. Don’t take your puppy to the dog park, obedience classes, groomer, etc until after that third round of puppy shots. Clean up feces from other dogs in your area to avoid contact with your puppy, and consider disinfecting your shoes and cleaning your other dog’s feet if you take them to the dog park.

Can Vaccinated Dogs Get Parvo?

Even the best preventive measures don’t mean that your dog won’t get parvo. However, vaccinated dogs that contract parvo usually experience a milder illness than those that are unvaccinated. Having your dog vaccinated will increase their chances of survival but won’t completely keep your dog free from a parvo infection.

Can A Dog Survive Parvo?

Parvo is a scary disease for our pups to get, but it is survivable. Being properly vaccinated and early intervention will definitely increase your dog’s chance of survival. Preventing dehydration and secondary infections will also help. So the earlier you get control of these aspects, the greater their chance of recovering. Understanding the proper vaccination sequence and the ability to recognize early symptoms will be your dog’s greatest allies against parvo.


Parvo is still a very concerning disease in dogs, especially puppies. However, with proper vaccination and early detection, most dogs will overcome parvo. Do your part to help protect your pup and speak with your veterinarian anytime you’re concerned.

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