A Cornell Vet Tries to Calm the Nationwide Panic Over the Dog-Killing Epidemic Parvovirus

updated 09/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1980 01:00AM

This summer dog owners across the U.S. have become suddenly—and tragically—aware of parvovirus, a new and deadly canine disease that has reached near-epidemic proportions. The affliction, first diagnosed in the U.S. in 1978, can cause fever, intestinal ailments, heart disease and sudden death. Not surprisingly, it has sent dog owners running in panic to veterinarians in search of dwindling supplies of vaccine. No reliable estimate of the number of cases is available, but it is clearly increasing.

Perhaps the U.S.'s leading authority on parvovirus is Dr. Leland Carmichael, 50, scientific director of the James A. Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He spent the past two years studying the disease and searching for an effective long-term vaccine against the organism. Last week he talked about parvovirus—and his progress—with Cherie Burns of PEOPLE:

What is parvovirus?

There are two forms of the disease. The first is a highly contagious intestinal malady. The second causes heart inflammation in puppies less than 3 months old. In either case, parvovirus is spread by contact with the feces of infected dogs. It does not affect other animals or humans.

How high is the incidence rate?

We don't know. Some area surveys show that 50 percent of the dog population has been infected, but only 10 or 20 percent of these infected dogs ever display any visible symptoms. Some say 30 percent of dogs who show symptoms die, but my best guess is that the mortality rate is probably less than one percent. Fatalities are higher in puppies and when other viruses, parasites or bacteria already exist in the intestinal tract.

How can fatalities be prevented?

Most of the cases caught within the first 24 hours will survive if they are properly treated.

How do you detect the disease?

The initial symptoms are loss of appetite, followed by diarrhea or a loose stool that may vary in color from chalky gray to a dark excretion that contains variable amounts of blood. The animals become very rapidly dehydrated within 24 to 48 hours. When dogs first show severe diarrhea, they should be rushed to a vet.

What is the proper treatment?

It's too late to vaccinate, so the treatment is symptomatic: (1) intravenous feeding for dogs that vomit repeatedly and lose a lot of their essential salts and electrolytes; or (2) intestinal protectants like Kaopectate and Pepto-Bismol for diarrhea. Good nursing, like keeping the dog warm, is also important. If they survive for three or four days, they usually recover.

Can the second type—heart inflammation—be similarly treated?

No. Because it infects puppies shortly before or after birth, it often develops into a fatal heart disease. The puppies show signs of gagging and die very suddenly. This form is seen in pups 3 to 15 weeks old. We don't know yet if those that recover suffer permanent heart damage.

What is your preventive advice ?

For young puppies I recommend normal cleanliness measures and disinfection. Chlorine bleach, about a one-to-30 solution, to wash down kennels is recommended. If I had an 8-to-10-week-old puppy, I'd keep his nose out of other dogs' stool and wash his feet in a bleach solution when I brought him in. Of course, one gram of stool tracked in on a shoe has enough virus to infect a million dogs.

Do you propose universal inoculation?

No. Veterinarians have been pressured into setting up vaccination clinics, but I think they are sources of infection. People stand in line and mix susceptible dogs with some that are already carrying the virus. Only dogs that are going to associate with others, say in dog shows or kennels, should be inoculated.

How effective are existing vaccines?

Protection begins within a week to 10 days and lasts three to four weeks, at which time a second injection should be given to extend the dog's immunity for another three to four months. We are now working on a vaccine that could be almost 100 percent effective for a year or more.

When will it be available?

It could be commercially available in six to eight months. So far it looks safe. But I will not authorize it until I am sure.

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