She didn’t look like much. A tiny puppy weighing in under 6 pounds, all black with just a white tip to her nose, she seemed exhausted. She had been dumped off with her brothers a few days earlier and had the good luck to be rescued by a kind hearted man. After only 72 hours in her new-found home she was clearly very sick and about to test the generosity of her benefactor.
Today little “Callie” wasn’t playing, wasn’t eating, and had passed some pinkish tan diarrhea. We were all worried about Parvo. Sometimes I think Merced could be re-named “Parvo Land”. The Parvo virus was first recognized in the early 80’s, attacking mostly young puppies by settling in their stomach and intestines and sometimes literally causing the lining of their innards to slough out. Affected pups vomit, pass bloody diarrhea, become very dehydrated and often die. The virus drops their white cell count, the body’s blood cells that fight off infection, so the body’s natural soldiers to disarm the enemy virus are out of commission! Pills, antibiotics and such, don’t work against viruses. Once a puppy has contracted the disease, intensive support of their body systems and time are the only things that will help them live through it. No guarantees.
Parvo can be prevented by vaccinating young puppies, starting at 6 weeks of age. They need a series of shots, just like little kids, before their immune system has developed enough to fully protect them. Most puppies should have received 3 to 4 Parvo vaccinations (properly spaced) by the time they’re 4 months old- then they’re protected!
We didn’t know anything about Callie’s past, but guessed that whoever abandoned her probably hadn’t vaccinated her at all. We waited for her Parvo test to run, a simple fecal swab that can be run in-office in minutes. Her brothers were still playing in the backyard at home. The Parvo virus is highly contagious to other, unvaccinated dogs. We all knew that she might have been exposed to the virus by another dog directly, or indirectly by something as simple as a fly. The bloody diarrhea passed by affected dogs attracts flies, which then serve as “mechanical vectors” (they get right down and walk in it, spreading it around their little fly feet) and do what flies do – buzz around the neighborhood, spreading a little parvo with them sometimes. (Note to self : keep yard clean with frequent poop patrol and clean up. Fewer flies!).
Callie’s test was positive for Parvo. We felt defeated: she was so young, so terribly thin, not enough time in her new home to respond to regular meals and a warm bed. The chances that her brand new owner would spring for the intensive care she required to pull through was unlikely – even the most generous hearted rescue groups have been fazed by the unpredictable response to treatment by this disease and may put their hard earned dollars elsewhere into a more “sure thing”. There are no guarantees with Parvo.
Callie was fortunate – we had permission to proceed with hospitalization. Everyone dove in. She had a blood test to check her white cell count (a little low, it was under 8,000). Her little arm was shaved and an IV catheter placed in her vein. Her blood sugar was monitored, and a regimen of fluids to rehydrate and support her through the IV began. She received injections into her blood stream to stop her nausea, calm the pain of cramping, counteract against possible sepsis (secondary bacterial infections that take advantage when the white cell count drops and can cause death). The first 24 hours were neither good nor bad. Because she wasn’t given anything by mouth to eat or drink, her vomiting stopped, but the trickling diarrhea continued. She stayed cocooned in her little blankets in isolation. By Day 2 her white cell count was dropping – not a good sign. We fought on. On Day 3 her white cell count dropped under 1,000 and we predicted death and gave her owner the option to end treatment. Her owner allowed us to proceed against all odds. Callie hovered another 24 hours, my staff shaking their heads, miserable that we couldn’t just MAKE her better. And then the blood test showed her white cell count was up. We knew she had turned the corner, and just as quickly as she got sick little Callie began to rally. She ate a little food later that day. She came off her IV’s the next and just that fast, began to yip at us and gripe about being confined to a cage bed.
Callie’s brothers contracted Parvo, also, and survived. With more time and a whole lot of Tender Loving Care (thank you, Jim) they grew into cute Border Collies. If we share the word of Callie’s story and get our puppies vaccinated there will be much less disease around Merced to spread to other puppies – and wouldn’t that be a lovely ending to the story?
Christine B. McFadden, DVM