The differences between parvovirus and canine distemper

The differences between parvovirus and canine distemper

Health & Safety

Both canine distemper and the parvovirus are serious health conditions, and are the two most commonly diagnosed systemic viral conditions in the dog. It can be a challenge for the dog owner to tell which condition their dog is suffering from and how serious the illness is, and there are several symptoms that are common to both conditions, making identification harder.

In this article, we will look at the similarities and differences between canine distemper and parvovirus, and how to tell the two apart. Read on to learn more.


Parvovirus or simply parvo is the term given to a group of viruses, rather than one specific one. However, the vast majority of the viruses that make up the parvo grouping are species-specific, meaning that canine parvovirus will generally only affect dogs, human parvovirus people, and so on. That being said, there is one particular mutated strain of the canine parvovirus that can also affect cats as well, which is worth bearing in mind if you keep cats as well as dogs.

The parvovirus is actually very widely spread throughout the environment, and is incredibly hardy as well. Because it is virtually impossible to prevent a dog from becoming exposed to the virus altogether, vaccination against the condition is advised as soon as this is possible, taking into account the age of the dog. This is also one of the main reasons why young, unvaccinated puppies should not go out in public until they have had all of their jabs.

Whether or not a dog may become ill from the parvovirus depends on a range of factors, including the immune strength of the dog, how high the viral count is, and various other factors as well. Dogs that have been vaccinated against parvovirus are unlikely to develop the virus, although there are some exceptions. However, a dog that has been vaccinated and yet still contracts the virus will tend to show milder symptoms and have a better chance of survival than an unvaccinated dog.

The symptoms of canine parvovirus

Dogs that have contracted parvovirus will begin to become symptomatic within 3-7 days of exposure. The symptoms that accompany the condition usually include:

  • Listlessness and lethargy.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea, which may contain blood.
  • Dehydration.
  • Shock.
  • Toxaemia due to the destruction of the colon, and the associated toxins from this entering the bloodstream.
  • During the later stages of the condition, the entire body of dog will develop a very distinctive and foul smell.

Left untreated, canine parvovirus proves fatal in up to 90% of dogs. However, if treatment is begun promptly, the survival rate for adult dogs is in excess of 85%. Very young puppies have a much poorer chance of survival, and the condition generally proves fatal in puppies, even with treatment.

Canine distemper

Canine distemper is another viral condition, and again, is very serious. It most commonly presents in puppies aged under six months old, as their immune systems are still developing, and may not yet be strong enough to fight off the condition in the same way as adult dogs can.

The canine distemper virus affects the lymph nodes, nervous system and epithelial system, and is an airborne virus that is transmitted in infected secretions such as urine, faeces, eye fluids, saliva and nasal secretions. Like parvovirus, canine distemper is one of the conditions that are commonly vaccinated against in dogs, greatly reducing the chances of the condition developing. However again, it is possible, though unlikely, that a vaccinated dog can develop the condition, although again, it will tend to be milder than presentations seen in unvaccinated dogs.

The symptoms of canine distemper

  • A high temperature and associated fever is generally the first symptom of canine distemper, although this may be overlooked in the earliest stages of the infection.
  • Listlessness and lethargy generally follow quickly.
  • Loss of appetite is common.
  • Symptoms such as a cough, sneezing and a runny nose also develop.
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea are also common.
  • Later, seizures and fitting may be present.
  • One of the core and most noticeable differences between parvovirus and canine distemper is that the pads of the dog’s paws usually become hardened and thickened in canine distemper infection, but not in parvovirus.

There is no specific cure or accepted recovery protocol for a dog with canine distemper, and treating the condition usually relies on supportive therapies, such as keeping the dog hydrated, comfortable, and managing pain. Anticonvulsant medications may be used, and if a secondary bacterial infection is complicating the condition, antibiotics are often used too.

Canine distemper usually proves fatal in around 50% of adult dogs, and up to 80% of puppies.

Both canine parvovirus and canine distemper are serious conditions, which require urgent veterinary treatment in order to give the dog the best chance of survival. Early intervention and supportive care can make the difference between death and survival, and so if your dog becomes ill, even if you are not sure what is wrong with them, take them along to the vet ASAP.



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