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Canine Parvovirus Explained – Outbreaks

A bit unexpectedly, I found myself digging into the details of a recent (and ongoing) canine parvovirus outbreak in Massachusetts. Regular media tends to report just 2 things: (1) There is an outbreak. (2) Vaccinate your pets. That’s NOT nearly enough information for dog people like us, so I’ll be writing a series of posts with more details and more science behind parvo outbreaks and parvo immunity. This is the first post in the series. It explains what I want you to think when you first hear about a parvovirus outbreak.

Full disclosure: I’m particularly interested in this topic because I worry that outbreaks may lead to over-vaccination of dogs who really don’t need to have a “booster shot.” Having lost my canine soul mate to an adverse rabies vaccine reaction in December 2013, after a 693-day fight for her life, has NOT made me anti-vaccine, but it has made me quite concerned with over-vaccination of dogs as a standard practice. You see, the trend toward vaccinating every dog for everything every year began in the 1970s when parvo first roared onto the scene — killing scads of dogs.

Also, both Lilly, our late blog heroine, and Ginko, my remaining / elderly dog, SURVIVED parvo as puppies, so I know how scary this disease can be.

syringe photo

When You 1st Hear About a Parvo Outbreak …

I want you to remember:

Parvo outbreaks do NOT mean there is a newer / stronger / vaccine-resistant form out there. Parvo is scary enough in its regular form. It was virulent in the 1970s. It remains virulent today. Think of it as the Zombie of the canine virus world. It doesn’t die easily in the environment, after being deposited via infected animal eliminations. The virus can live outside the body (as long as 7 months, in the right conditions), just waiting to infect another animal.

Parvo outbreaks are not uncommon and typically affect unvaccinated dogs and puppies. There was a prolonged outbreak in 2013 that swept down from Northern California into Southern California and on into Arizona and Nevada before it finally stopped. I didn’t hear about that one. Did you?

FYI – It doesn’t help that infected / sick puppies and healthy ones coming in for vaccines may cross paths at veterinary hospitals or vaccination clinics. (Kind of makes me want to suggest hiring a house-call veterinarian to do puppy vaccinations at home.)

There will ALWAYS be a risk gap between when the antibodies a puppy gets from his mother’s milk fades and when a vaccine has time to work. Always. It’s about 2 weeks long, and there is just NO way to close that gap. When you hear about puppies being cared for properly, who’ve started getting vaccines, this is most likely what has happened. They were exposed to parvo — someway, somehow — during this window of time. Yes, they’ve been vaccinated, but they are not immune.

Vaccination doesn’t always mean immunity has been established in an individual animal. We’ll talk in future posts about how that happens, but just know that there are situations where a vaccinated dog does not have immunity — either because puppy vaccines were blocked from working by the mom dog’s maternal antibodies or because the puppy is a so-called non-responder (meaning no matter how many times you vaccinate immunity just doesn’t happen). I’ll do a whole post on non-response, so stay tuned. About 1 in every 1,000 dogs / puppies does NOT respond to the parvo virus. It’s genetic.

So, What About this Parvo Outbreak in Massachusetts …

Word was going around that some of the dogs who got sick and/or died in the parvovirus outbreak in Massachusetts were ADULT dogs who had been fully vaccinated.

If true, that is indeed scary. I put a request into Dr. Ron Schultz at the University of Wisconsin veterinary school. He is a PhD, not a DVM, but he is a genius immunologist in the veterinary field. Truly. As far as I’m concerned, NO ONE knows more about vaccines, immunity and the viruses / bacteria that affect pets. He has been on the front lines of parvo since the first days. Or as he jokes, “since the beginning of time.”

Dr. Schultz was nice enough to call me back right away. We had a GREAT discussion about parvo (including the main points above), then I went into full reporter mode to see what FACTS I could find about the parvo outbreak in Massachusetts.

So far, I haven’t heard back from anyone in Lowell, Mass. It’s a shame because that’s where these reports of adult dogs being affected seem to come.

HOWEVER, here is what I have been able to chase down from organizations with hands-on contact with these cases:

5 cases near Lawrence, Mass
Source: Mike Keiley, Methuen Animal Care and Adoption Center at Nevins Farm / MSPCA, via phone

  • All puppies
  • All unvaccinated
  • All died

24 cases near Springfield, Mass (22 confirmed, 2 suspected)
Source: Karina King and Lee Chambers, Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, via email

  • 3 puppies about 2-3 months old
  • 8 puppies about 4-6 months old
  • 6 dogs about 7-11 months old
  • 5 dogs age 1 year and up
  • Only one of the puppies had received 1 vaccine.
  • 9 were euthanized
  • 6 recovered at the humane society then went home.
  • 1 went home to recover, but later died.
  • 1 went home to recover and is still doing OK.
  • 7 went home with meds, but the humane society hasn’t been able to reach the families to find out how the dogs / puppies are doing.

In addition, the humane society tells me that a local emergency hospital has seen another 29 confirmed cases (as diagnosed via SNAP test), but anecdotally, it looks like only 25% of cases they are seeing get the SNAP test (families declined), so the total cases may be higher.

Official vaccination status of reported cases

Parvovirus is a reportable disease, meaning veterinarians and animal agencies have to tell state officials about confirmed cases. I contacted the Massachusetts Division of Animal Health and received the following info, via email:

  • All of the reported cases have been in UNvaccinated dogs or puppies

Just to be EXTRA sure, I followed up later to ask if “unvaccinated” meant NEVER having been vaccinated or simply that re-vaccination was “overdue.”

The answer came back >> never vaccinated.

Basically, with 3 sources refuting reports that some of the dogs were vaccinated adult dogs, I feel comfortable saying that this is a “normal” parvo outbreak. — meaning in unvaccinated dogs by the same parvo strain that’s been around for 36 years or so. I’m NOT saying it isn’t terrible that dogs are getting so sick and dying. I’m NOT saying it isn’t something to worry about. I’m just saying that this does happen. It will continue to happen for some of the reasons noted above.

If the Worst Does Happen …

During my conversation last week with Dr. Schultz, I painted a bit of a doomsday scenario for him. I asked him what *if* he did get word that a whole bunch of adult vaccinated dogs were dying of parvo in a community.

He replied, “Then, I’m going to be there.”

I asked, “Taking a look at patient zero?”

He replied, “You better believe it. I will be there for sure.”

My best advice to you? Until you hear credible reports of vaccinated adult dogs dying of parvo in large numbers, it means something else is going on — not a failure of the vaccine, not a new strain.

If cases like that really do crop up and you see credible reports coming from Dr. Schultz or saying that he is investigating, then you’ll know something BIG is going on.

I hope this has been helpful. Stay tuned for future parvo posts about:

  • Why the risky window for parvo will never go away … and how it might look like adult / vaccinated dogs are getting sick
  • What a parvo non-responder is and how to know if your dog / puppy is one
  • How breeders interested in minimal vaccination protocols are working with Dr. Schultz to pinpoint the best times to vaccinate each litter
  • And, maybe, if I feel up to it … how to provide antibodies to orphaned puppies
Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Amy Herbert - November 10, 2014

I attended and exhibited a dog show with 4 of my Bullmastiffs under a year of age at the Big E in West Springfield, MA in March 2014. Each dog had been vaccinated and 5 days after returning home from the show they all started coming down with Parvo. I reported it to Mass Animal Disease control. I was not the only exhibitor who had dogs contract parvo after attending this dog show. I posted on my facebook page about it and received a bunch of emails from other breeders and exhibitors telling me their stories of dealing with Parvo after attending a dog show in Western Mass and Connecticut. From the count I got from the owners there were 7 confirmed deaths from Parvo from February-March 2014 after attending dog shows with fully vaccinated dogs.

    Roxanne Hawn - November 10, 2014

    That’s awful, Amy. I’m so sorry to hear about this exposure at a show. Since your dog were under 1 year, I wonder if it’s a case of maternal antibodies blocking the vaccine from working … even though they’d all be vaccinated. I didn’t look at the outbreak in early 2014 … just the one mentioned.

check THIS out! - September 19, 2014

Our puppy was 8 months old, when contracted the Parvo. She was FULLY vaccinated, moreover, we had a titer done on her, just to make sure, she was immune. Titer came back PERFECT! Yet, she still got it (AFTER the titer was done). 7 days hospitalization later she pulled through. <3 My question is, if a pup is a "non-responder", would the titer still be perfect, or should it show, that the pup is not immune?

    Roxanne Hawn - September 19, 2014

    That’s really strange. If your dog is a true non-responder, then NO … the titer test would come back negative, meaning your dog is unprotected. There is some debate about what level of titer is enough, but some believe that ANY sign of a titer means the dog is protected.

jeanine barone - September 16, 2014

Thanks for all this valuable information. You put everything into perspective with this carefully researched post. I’m passing it on to my friends who are dog owners.

Pamela - August 31, 2014

Puppy vulnerability is why I’ve fostered so many puppies. The local shelter is anxious to get puppies out of the shelter and into a foster home as quickly as possible so they aren’t exposed to diseases brought in by other shelter dogs before their immunity kicks in.

I really appreciate you going into reporter mode. When this story broke, I knew it was highly unlikely that I had any reason to worry about Honey. But it didn’t stop me from getting just a little bit worried when she decided to sleep in.
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KB - August 29, 2014

I agree about the risks in clinics to puppies going in for their vaccines. I always “whoosh” my puppy in, never letting his/her paws hit the ground, and getting out as fast as possible. Perhaps it would be even better to have the vet come out to the car to give the vaccines (just occurred to me)? That might be more doable than home visits, especially for those of us who don’t live in a town.

Great analysis. Sad but it’s good to understand what’s going on.
KB recently posted..A Long Journey – Part 2My Profile

ruth pennebaker - August 28, 2014

Excellent, reasoned analysis. It’s so easy to get scared and overreact when there’s a disease on the prowl.
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merr - August 27, 2014

Such a good, thorough, and comprehensive explanation of the issue. Thank you.

Alexandra - August 27, 2014

Thanks for all this information and really timely. My daughter is about to take a well-earned vacation for a week in France and has been so worried about leaving her dog. I will send her the link to this post. Thanks!

Jane - August 27, 2014

Hi Rox,
Life has intervened and I have very limited time for the web, but I’m so glad I followed the link in the email blast you sent out. Such a pleasure to read well-researched journalism for a change. Looking forward to future posts on this topic. Maybe you’ve found your new theme the COMH blog?
Hugs to your pack. – Jane

Sheryl - August 27, 2014

This is all so helpful. I’m passing it on to a friend who lives in Massachusetts and has 2 dogs!
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Brette - August 27, 2014

Thanks so much for clearing this up. It is scary for sure and having the facts really helps
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Lisa Spector - August 27, 2014

Fabulous explanation. Thanks for doing such a great investigation of this. Gina has an appointment tomorrow for her titer test and I am glad to be going into the appointment with more information. Thank you!
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Ximena - August 27, 2014

Thanks for this. My puppy was born in Toronto and I came up from the US to get him. I was told that he hadn’t been exposed to other dogs due to a parvovirus outbreak in Canada – it simply wasn’t safe enough to bring dogs in to the whelping area without being absolutely sure they wouldn’t also bring the virus in to completely unvaccinated puppies.

My pup was vaccinated for the first time yesterday; he’s 11 weeks old. I have been wary of overvaccination, as well. Since I’ve had him, he’s shown zero signs of parvo and has been in great health. Of course I’ve been worried about the outbreak, but it’s been at the back of my mind and I’ve been careful. I am impressed you got to speak with Dr. Schultz! and I feel so much better knowing that the outbreak has affected NEVER vaccinated dogs, though it is incredibly sad for those families. Your reporter-mode is greatly appreciated. 🙂

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