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parvovirus – the vaccination/socialization conundrum

Canine parvovirus, or “parvo” as it is commonly called, is one of the most significant health threats to puppies. It is also the cause of much confusion among new pet parents.

So, what is parvo? During a parvo infection, rapidly dividing cells, such as intestinal cells and bone marrow cells, are targeted by the virus. Viral attack of these cells results in debilitating diarrhea, as well as a drop in the defensive white blood cells usually produced by a puppy’s bone marrow to combat this type of infection. With parvo, a puppy can become fatally dehydrated, or if the intestinal walls become damaged, bacteria can cause septic infection of the blood. Scary, right?

The good news is that we have excellent vaccines that can help protect against parvo. However, there is a brief period before a puppy reaches 16 weeks where there is a “switchover” between antibodies from the mother and effective vaccine protection.

During this switchover time, any puppy can be vulnerable. For this reason, veterinarians recommend puppies under 16 weeks avoid any “potentially contaminated areas.” By now all new pet parents will be saying to themselves, “There’s a problem here. The outside world is terrifying because parvovirus is lurking on every corner BUT; the most important time to start socializing a puppy is before 16 weeks of age.” It’s quite the conundrum!

As with many things, the answer lies in a risk/ benefit balance. It’s possible to socialize your dog while minimizing the risk of parvoviral infection.

Since the virus is shed in the feces of infected dogs, you should avoid places where dogs commonly defecate. My list would include dog parks, common dog-walking trails, doggie daycare, groomers, kennels and pet stores. Even if you’re not putting your puppy on the ground in these places, the risk of getting something on your own shoes or clothes is too great, so it is truly best to avoid.

So, where can you go to socialize your puppy, without increasing his risk of getting parvo?

Friends and relatives might have fully-vaccinated adult dogs that your puppy can get to know. So long as you’re on home ground, as it were, it’s pretty safe.

Take your new pup out for a drive in the car (remember seatbelts!).

Carry him around the neighborhood to introduce him to a few people — just remember “paws off” the pavement and any unknown dogs you meet along the way!

So long as your back yard has been “strange dog free” for three to five months, it’s a great place to start leash training or basic obedience lessons.

The key to striking a balance lies in understanding how parvovirus is spread and using a commonsense approach. By following these guidelines and your veterinarian’s advice, we can make sure that it’s just knowledge that’s infectious and nothing else!

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