Charity's purpose to help bring a killer canine disease to heel

BOOST: Paws for A Purpose will help vaccinate dogs in rural and regional areas against parvo.
BOOST: Paws for A Purpose will help vaccinate dogs in rural and regional areas against parvo.

While there are very effective vaccines available, parvo continues to claim the lives of puppies and dogs in Australia.

Parvo disease is caused by canine parvovirus (CPV), a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus that most commonly affects unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated puppies or dogs.

Signs of parvo include vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, severe abdominal pain, weakness and lethargy. Affected dogs look miserable.

Parvo can also cause sudden death in puppies.

Treatment requires hospitalisation, intravenous fluids, and medication.

In severe cases, affected dogs may require intensive care and even blood transfusions.

The virus is spread by contact with faeces from infected animals.

It can survive in the environment for over one year, which makes it difficult to eradicate.

The virus can be transported on people's shoes, so even if a puppy has not left the house they can contract the virus if not vaccinated.

Parvo emerged in Australia over 40 years ago when a veterinarian in Brisbane reported the first case in 1978.

It spread rapidly through the Australian canine population, leading to a pandemic.

There were an estimated 66,000 cases in 1980.

Some infected dogs were asymptomatic, or displayed only mild signs of disease, but may have played an important role in transmitting the virus.

That same year, the first licensed parvovirus vaccine became available.

And yet, it is estimated that there are still around 20,000 cases of parvo every year in Australia.

The heartbreaking reality is that around half of these animals will die.

Parvo is almost entirely preventable through vaccination but the age a puppy receives its last 'puppy booster' is vital to ongoing immunity.

Of the puppies that have been infected with CPV following vaccination, more than 80 per cent had their final vaccination before the age of 16 weeks.

Therefore it is recommended that puppies are vaccinated according to the following schedule:

First vaccine: 6-8 weeks old

Second vaccine: 10-12 weeks old

Third vaccine: 16 weeks old

Annual booster: 12 months after that (14 months old)

Routine worming and good hygiene are also critical, as intestinal infections and parasite infestations may increase susceptibility to parvo and lead to more severe disease.

Puppies should be wormed every two weeks from the age of two weeks to three months, then monthly until six months, and every three months thereafter.

What about those dogs and puppies who aren't getting vaccinated?

Dr Mark Kelman, a veterinarian who just completed a PhD on parvovirus, has a plan.

Dr Kelman's research revealed that socioeconomically disadvantaged pet owners are most at risk of their dog getting parvo, and having to euthanase their pet because of the cost of treatment.

Rural and remote areas have significantly more parvo cases, so these are the areas where disease reduction strategies are most vital.

He also found evidence that wild dogs can carry and transmit the virus to domestic dogs, and vice versa.

And with no solution yet available for the ongoing spread of the disease, he started a charity, Paws for A Purpose, to provide parvo vaccines where they are desperately needed.

"By providing heavily-discounted, subsidised CPV vaccination in high-risk regions to disadvantaged pet owners we will prevent disease cases and disease spread," Dr Kelman said.

The charity is about to launch a national parvo surveillance and alert system, which will provide data on parvo cases that vets are seeing, as well as monitor the effectiveness of vaccine programs and identify parvo hot-spots.

It is also developing a Parvo Protection Program, which will enable people in need to register for discounted vaccinations.

"We would love to eradicate parvo, but at the very least we can significantly reduce case numbers," Dr Kelman said.

"We are initially aiming for a 90 per cent reduction in parvo cases nationally, but it will take a few years to hit this goal."

It takes an army to eliminate an infectious disease.

"We will continue to partner with veterinarians, councils, shelters, animal welfare organisations, the media, corporations and pet lovers, nationally, to grow and scale our programs," Dr Kelman said.

You can help by ensuring that your pets are vaccinated against parvo.

You can also help other dogs by purchasing Paws for A Purpose treats from your veterinarian or online, or donating to www.pawsforapurpose.org.

Dr Anne QuainBVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.