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by Gemma Handy

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Pet owners are being urged to be alert to symptoms of a lethal virus affecting dogs.

Local vets are reporting a surge in cases of parvovirus, a gastrointestinal illness which particularly affects puppies. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting and severe diarrhoea. 

Parvovirus is spread from dog to dog by direct or indirect contact with their faeces. It is usually preventable via a vaccine but, if untreated, it can kill – and quickly.

Dr Nneka Hull James, a veterinary officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, told Observer there had been a “significant increase” in recent weeks.

And she warned that fast action after symptoms are spotted is vital, with four in five cases seen ending in death.

“The mortality rate of parvo is very high. Unfortunately, over 80 percent of the pups that we see with parvo – especially the younger ones – end up dying. It’s really something pet owners need to be aware of,” she explained.

“If you notice that your pet is vomiting, has a foul-smelling diarrhoea, is no longer eating and is lethargic, it’s very important to contact your veterinarian so that appropriate measures can be taken for treatment.

“It does not make sense to wait a couple of days and see if the dog is going to start eating again, because the longer you wait the worse it will get,” Dr Hull James said.

Precisely why the disease appears to be on the rise is unclear.

“I think it’s something seasonal. I should hope it’s not a situation where we are possibly seeing a different strain that we are not accustomed to which could be a lot more infectious,” she said.

“Thankfully, the same methods of treatment we generally use have been working but it really has been quite a significant increase.”

Dr Hull James urged dog owners to get their pets vaccinated without delay. Shots are available inexpensively at all local vet practices.

“We are trying to educate pet owners across Antigua to really be as responsible as possible; make sure you look out for the signs and do not neglect to have your dog vaccinated because that can possibly save that animal’s life,” she explained.

Dr Hull James added that it’s crucial not to take a new pet for a walk – whether on a beach or road –before it is inoculated as the illness can be easily contracted.

Dr Radcliffe Robins, of Pioneer Kennel, told Observer parvovirus is typically more prevalent at certain times of the year.

 “It comes up most with an increase in dogs’ oestrous cycle – ie, when they go into heat. With more puppies around, there are more cases of parvo,” he explained.

“With an increase in rain and more moisture on the ground, that favours transmission of the virus too. We continue to see quite a bit of it.”

Dr Robins gave specific advice to anyone breeding dogs.

“The most important thing is not to breed an unvaccinated female. Make sure she is fully vaccinated so she can transmit some protection to her puppies up to the time they are five or six weeks’ old,” he continued.

“Breeding and birthing should only be done in clean areas – not under a tree or in a garage – because parvo is transmitted in the stool of a sick dog and there could be remains of it in the soil.”

Puppies should be vaccinated between five and six weeks’ old, he said.

Dr Robins added that some breeds – such as Rottweilers – are more susceptible than others to parvovirus.

Treatment for the illness may include antibiotics, supportive fluids, and other medication.