I remember back in the late 70s and early 80s when parvovirus first became a problem. I remember that distinctive smell. I remember the cumbersome jugular catheters we used for dogs that we knew would require IV fluid therapy for days, or rather, for as many days as they survived.
Certain breeds seemed to be more susceptible back then. In the area where I worked it was mostly Rottweilers and Dobermanns. It was also the time of the anti-apartheid uprising in South Africa and people were building high walls, installing alarm systems and getting large dogs to protect their properties. In retrospect it made sense that these breeds were contracting the virus – they may have lived miles apart, but many were attending the same training centres, being taught aggression and man work.
And so, apart from the ugliness of the disease itself, we also had to contend with dogs that were unfriendly and difficult to handle.
Parvovirus attacks rapidly dividing cells i.e. parts of the body where cells are short lived and constantly being renewed, usually in the intestines but in younger dogs and puppies also the heart muscle. This so-called cardiac parvo has a very poor prognosis and the mortality rate is extremely high. Even in stronger, healthy dogs the inflammation in the intestines causes the distinctive foul-smelling bloody diarrhea, life-threatening dehydration and a great deal of discomfort. Either way parvovirus is a killer.
Viruses are clever little critters and they mutate or adjust to ensure their survival.When a new virus appears, such as HIV or Avian Flu, infected people often die within a very short period. The longer the host, or sick person or animal, survives, the greater its chance of being spread to the next victim, and the next, and so we often see the survival time increases, the epidemic slows down, and the mortality rate decreases. This is all so that the virus itself can survive – if an infected individual dies, the virus usually dies with it, so plans must be made to ensure that it can be passed on to as many other people or animals as possible before this happens.
The parvovirus has another trick up its sleeve – it can survive for several months outside a host, in the environment, in bedding, on food bowls, in kennels and even in the soil, successfully infecting a new puppy brought into the home or a dog walking across the same field.
The only effective protection is, of course, vaccination.
In Khayelitsha, where the Mdzananda Animal Clinic is situated, as with many other economically disadvantaged areas in South Africa, the majority of dogs have not been vaccinated. Puppies born to these dogs don’t have the advantage of receiving some immunity from their mother. The number of dogs who fall ill with the parvovirus in the area leads to an environment that is contaminated with infected faeces.
As summer weather warms up down south, the parvovirus that is dormant in the environment becomes active, and sadly, Mdzananda’s isolation ward fills up with dogs requiring intensive care, a bird’s nest of drips hanging from the drip stands, and a mountain of blankets requiring washing and disinfection.
Death is no stranger here during parvo season.
But neither is joy as we celebrate a victory!
One of our biggest challenges at Mdzananda is in the education of the community to ensure that their pets are vaccinated. This we do through our mobile clinic, discussions with owners who bring their pets for treatment and groups of school children who are encouraged to visit the clinic.
In the warmer summer months we provide a dip facility which not only reduces the number of biliary cases but also gives us an opportunity to build relationships with the owners and chat about good animal care.
There is a commonly held belief that poor people do not care for their pets, but Mdzananda is proof that this is untrue. We see hundreds of concerned owners bringing their pets for assistance. It is poverty and ignorance, not lack of compassion that are the root of animal problems in the community – something we are fighting towards changing.
Thanks to the generosity of our individual donors, paw members, IFAW and Investec Mdzananda vaccinates hundreds of dogs each year saving them from the ravages of this dreadful disease. We will continue to fight this deadly disease through continuous education on the necessity of early vaccination.