Outbreak of parvo virus confirmed in Alaskan dog kennels
As if the 85 mushers preparing to start the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this weekend don’t have enough to worry about, a large canine parvovirus outbreak has been confirmed in Interior Alaska.
State Veterinarian Robert Gerlach said that there have been at least four dog-mushing kennels affected with the virus, as well as a few other individual cases.
Parvovirus, or parvo for short, is not one of the diseases that must be reported, so the actual number of infected dogs is unknown. Reports have come in from Fairbanks to Cantwell. Gerlach confirmed there have been large numbers of dogs reported dead in some kennels.
There are a few traits that make dogs more susceptible to the virus, Gerlach said, such as old and young dogs as well as dogs under stress. Working dogs, such as sled dogs, are under high levels of physical and mental stress, which can decrease their immune system.
Parvo is most common in puppies, so the risk of contraction is reduced by giving the dogs vaccinations early. In addition to shots at six, nine and twelve weeks, it is beneficial for adult dogs to receive booster shots. However, Gerlach noted that some of the infected dogs had received parvo vaccines. He is unsure why the vaccine was ineffective, but noted that vaccines cannot guarantee 100 percent immunity from a disease. He said that samples have been taken and sent to laboratories outside of Alaska for further testing.
The virus can be spread by any canine, said Gerlach. Foxes, wild dogs and wolves can be infected with and spread the disease to domestic dogs, but Gerlach did not say if this was what caused this outbreak.
Once a dog comes into contact with the virus, Gerlach said, it can take anywhere from two days to two weeks to manifest itself. Parvo affects the animal’s ability to absorb nutrients, causing the dog to become dehydrated and lose weight. According to Gerlach, the first symptom of parvo is usually depression and lethargy, followed by loose, bloody stools, fever and vomiting. Since there is no antivirus medication, the disease cannot be completely cured. Instead, animals are treated symptomatically. Since the virus causes dehydration, the dogs are often given IV drips.
Humans are not affected by the strain of parvo that manifests itself in canines, but they can be carriers of the disease. The virus can is spread by direct contact with an infected animal, but also by contact with the dog’s feces. Parvo can be transmitted by shoes and clothing that have come into contact with feces.
Nome and the other checkpoints on the Iditarod trail are in a difficult position in the face of the outbreak. Hundreds of dogs will pass through each village and town, and many communities, including Nome, do not have a full-time veterinarian.
To keep pets and sled dogs, as safe as possible, Gerlach recommends that owners avoid letting dogs socialize —the virus can be spread by a simple nose touch — and to avoid sharing equipment, such as food bowls. Gerlach said dog-owning spectators should change clothes and wash hands before touching their own dogs to avoid indirect contact.
Bri Kelly, media coordinator with The Iditarod Trail Committee, said the ITC is aware of the outbreak, and is monitoring the situation closely. Though they will provide additional details in a few days, they are currently working to determine what the protocols will be. As always, to be eligible to participate in the race, dogs must have received a parvo vaccine. Iditarod mushers start out with 16 dogs per team, which means up to 1,360 dogs will participate in the 2016 race.