Canine parvovirus is a deadly disease that can strike fear into the hearts of new puppy owners. Though it's often thought of as a puppy disease, it can infect dogs of any life stage. Even though it's not as common, older dogs can get parvo. Since this can affect dogs of any age and breed, we need to develop a good understanding of it as responsible pet parents.
How Adult Dogs Get Parvovirus
Adult dogs that haven't been vaccinated or developed a natural immunity can get parvo if they're exposed to enough of the virus. If your adult dog has a compromised immune system, they can also get parvovirus if exposed.
Veterinarian Dr. Jeff Werber describes the typical incidence of a disease with a dog. "In any disease, there's always a battle between immunity, in other words the antibodies, and the load of the antigen. If the antigen load is higher than the antibody protection, then the dog gets the disease."
He summarizes, "It all depends on what we call the 'challenge dose,' which is how much virus the dog is exposed to and whether he has enough antibodies to beat it." In other words, if your dog's body has made enough fighter cells to win a battle against the diseased cells, your dog probably won't get sick. If your dog's body doesn't have enough fighter cells to go into battle and win, that's when parvo will win.
Differences Between Adult and Puppy Parvovirus
Both the symptoms and treatment of parvovirus are the same for adult dogs and puppies. According to Dr. Werber, adult parvo is probably not as serious as parvo in puppies, but, "You still have to treat it," regardless. Just as with puppies, the treatment of parvo with adult dogs is largely supportive care and protection against secondary infections.
When your dog's immune system is already fighting one disease, it doesn't have as many fighters to battle against other diseases or infections. Boosting the immune system is key to preventing secondary conditions.
Risk of Parvovirus to Adult Dogs
Parvovirus is more common in puppies than adult dogs, primarily due to their lack of immunity. A new puppy's body has been shielded from the outside world by their mother's womb. They haven't made the fighter cells yet. Once dogs are born and grow, they can inherit immunity passively from the mother, acquire it through vaccinations, or develop it from environmental exposure.
The mother dog's colostrum is not only packed full of nutrients but also immune cells to help their puppies fight the dangers of the outside world.
Vaccinated Adult Dogs and Parvovirus
A dog that has been vaccinated against parvo can still get the disease, but it's usually a lot easier on their body if they've been vaccinated. No vaccine can be said to provide 100% complete protection, and this is particularly true if the virus strains change. Some dogs may not have properly processed the vaccine when it was given, which results in a lack of those fighter cells particular to this condition. This could happen due to your dog's health at the time or due to receiving a higher-than-normal amount of antibodies when nursing from their mother.
If your pup received an overly abundant number of antibodies in the womb, they can actually cancel out the effects of the vaccine.
Giving Older Dogs the Parvovirus Vaccine
If you have an older dog that has never been vaccinated, it's still possible to vaccinate them for parvovirus as long as they're healthy. Dr. Werber states, "The vaccine issue is not a function of age as much as body condition and health." A dog that is younger but very ill would be a bad candidate for vaccination, because you would be giving them the antigen of a disease just when their body's immune system is already compromised.
An older dog, even a senior dog as long as they're healthy, could be safely vaccinated and benefit from the protection afforded by the vaccine.
Vaccine Titers for Older Dogs
Dr. Werber advises his clients with older dogs to consider vaccine titers. A titer test can measure the level of antibodies in a dog's system and let you know whether a vaccine is necessary or if antibody protection is low. A dog with poor immunity could then be vaccinated, but if your dog already has enough antibodies, there's no point in giving the vaccine.
If your dog already has the vaccination and their titer test comes out good, the potential complications with the vaccine aren't worth risking.
Treating Parvo in Adult Dogs and Puppies
Treatment recommendations are generally the same, regardless of your dog's age. Veterinarians recommend plenty of fluids, vitamins added to those fluids, and antibiotics to help the dog fight off the condition. An adult dog's immune system is probably stronger than a young puppy's, and as long as you can keep them hydrated and control the vomiting, an adult dog should do a little better than a puppy.
Multiple Cases of Parvovirus
With some diseases, having the virus once and surviving it can give your dog lifelong immunity. But unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Similar to how we can get the flu more than once, no matter how sick we get, dogs can get parvo multiple times regardless of how severe the issue was. This is because if there's a new viral strain, the body hasn't been able to develop antibodies to fight against the new strain.
Older Dogs and Canine Parvovirus
While parvovirus isn't as common in older dogs, they are, by no means, free of risk of catching the disease. Adult dogs who get parvo may be better able to survive the disease, but without treatment, a fatality is not impossible. It's important to make sure your dog is properly vaccinated to protect them as much as possible against parvo. If you're unsure whether your dog needs the vaccination, speak to your veterinarian and discuss your options, including titer testing.