Science

What Happened When My Vaccinated Puppy Contracted a Mysterious Stomach Illness

During the pandemic, dog populations have experienced spikes in parvovirus.

A puppy with large floppy ears on a couch with stripes.
Photo by Izabelly Marques on Unsplash

Our family puppy was less than six months old and had received all of his vaccines when he came down with a disease inside of his stomach. In December, two days after taking him to the local dog park that we frequented, our vivacious eater and playful pup abruptly lost his appetite and became lethargic. Serious and consistent bouts of diarrhea and vomiting set in.

The next morning, we rushed him to a local veterinarian where they chocked his symptoms up to a minor stomach virus. They sent us home with antibiotics. But his conditions only worsened. After another 48 hours, blood appeared in his stool and it was evident he was rapidly declining, becoming weaker and losing his cheerful personality. We rushed him to an emergency vet in the middle of the night where we waited for five hours to be seen, as he moaned in our arms. Due to a long line of other emergency patients, we finally gave up.

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The following day, at the recommendation of a neighbor, we rushed him to a nearby Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) who took him into the examining room immediately. They discovered a bug known as parvovirus eating his intestinal tract, and began treating him immediately, keeping him overnight in a quarantined section of the building. This was surprising, because he’d been vaccinated against parvovirus—an illness that has spiked in recent years, even with widespread availability of an inoculation against it.

Canine Parvovirus emerged in the late 70s, having evolved from feline panleukopenia, a similar viral infectious disease that primarily affected kittens. Puppies between six and twenty weeks have remained the most vulnerable to the deadly disease, usually contracting it through fecal-oral transmission. The number of individual dogs who have been affected by parvovirus is unknown, but cases continue to be reported globally––particularly in developing nations where stray dogs are rampant, like India, where veterinary practices are less common and the amount of homeless canines are estimated at over 60 million.

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During last year’s heavily rainy monsoon season, South Indian veterinarians saw an uptick in parvo cases, largely due to street dogs coming in contact with contaminated water. An endemic was declared and local animal hospitals, like Besant Memorial Animal Dispensary (BMAD) in Chennai, held vaccination drives for stray puppies who were most vulnerable to contracting the virus and passing it along to other dogs. “Inoculating a puppy or a dog gives them a fighting chance against the infection, which is all based on body immunity,” said Dr. R Sooraj Mohan, senior veterinarian at BMAD.

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Parvovirus is a concern here in the States, too. Only months into the coronavirus outbreak, as dog ownership saw a significant rise, Blue Pearl Pet Hospitals announced they found a 70 percent increase in Parvovirus infections across their 90 hospitals. A theory they posed was the increase in outdoor activities, including dog park attendance, due to stay-at-home orders early on in the pandemic. As with COVID-19 and humans though, a factor in parvovirus’s spread might simply be that some dogs aren’t getting vaccinated, because the shots can be difficult to access. As Blue Pearl explained in a press release: “Other possible causes for the uptick include disruptions in the timing of or prevention of puppies receiving full vaccine series, resulting in incomplete immunity, and financial hardships, such as job loss, preventing or delaying owners from seeking routine vaccinations.”

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It’s also the case that the parvovirus vaccination isn’t a complete guarantee against infection. “Immunisation failures represent one of the main reasons for [canine parvovirus] continuous circulation throughout the world,” write the authors of a 2020 review paper exploring why the disease continues to be “a leading cause of death from infectious disease amongst domestic dogs worldwide.” In one study conducted in Australia, 3 percent of some 1,500 cases occurred in dogs that had received both shots against parvovirus.

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Catching parvovirus as early as possible can be critical for survival, though the first vet we saw didn’t even test for it. For dogs who acquire the parvovirus, immediate treatment in the first 48 to 72 hours is crucial, with a 68-92 percent survival rate, and it may also cost thousands of dollars in proper care with no guarantee. If left untreated, the survival rate decreases to 9 percent.

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Our puppy remained at the vet in quarantine for about two weeks. We visited him once a day, wearing protective gowns, gloves and masks before entering. He struggled to stay alive; he had an IV in his arm, and was weak after losing two-thirds of weight. We told him how much we loved him, offering him our support and encouragement. The staff told us they believed the sound of our voices helped to keep his spirits and immune system up.

Finally, on December 24, he was strong enough to come home. His road to recovery continued as small meals were given to increase his strength and weight, rebuilding his damaged stomach and intestines. Slowly but surely, he’s recovering, playful and jubilant once again, as we celebrate him being seven months old.

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