There is something all-too-familiar about a virus which has cropped up in the area’s canine population.
“People say it’s so much like COVID,” says Debby Johnson, president of the Faribault County Humane Society (FCHS).
The disease in question – canine parvovirus, or ‘parvo,’ for short – is highly contagious. It can affect any dog, although unvaccinated dogs and puppies under four months old are most at-risk.
Parvo spreads easily via dog-to-dog contact and contaminated feces. The hardy virus can also survive on kennel surfaces, food and water bowls, collars and leashes, and even the hands and clothing of people who come in contact with it.
“If people don’t isolate dogs, it can spread,” Johnson summarizes.
The virus’s persistent nature has caused terrible trouble for the FCHS, which is still sequestered in a small facility adjacent to Blue Earth’s Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The tiny, one-room building offers few options for isolation, and its single drain spreads diseases via contaminated water which seeps from kennel to kennel.
The conditions are difficult under normal circumstances, but the FCHS found itself in a real spot when they took in Glitz, a German Shepherd who was surrendered to FCHS.
A few days after her arrival, Glitz began showing symptoms of parvo.
“The dog nearly died,” Johnson recalls. “It has recovered, but the dog has to be isolated for two or three more weeks.”
When first confronted with Glitz’s condition, Johnson admits, “We were in a quandary about what to do.”
Glitz is much recovered now, and can be found bounding around the enclosure where she remains isolated behind the FCHS building.
Nonetheless, Glitz’s improved health does not change the danger she poses to other dogs in the facility; dogs who contract parvo can remain contagious for up to two weeks after they are infected.
To combat this reality, Johnson took up a cloth and started disinfecting as best she could.
She recommends bleach as an effective disinfectant to combat parvo, but adds that it is important to check carefully that it will actually fight the disease.
“The disinfectant must state that it kills parvo,” she explains.
It took Johnson and other FCHS volunteers days to disinfect the entire facility.
“(Parvo) is a microscopic virus - how do you know you got everything?” she says.
However, the painstaking work was worth it, given parvo’s severity.
The virus targets dogs’ intestines. Its onset is marked by lethargy, loss of appetite, abdominal pain and bloating, fever or low body temperature, vomiting and severe, often bloody, diarrhea.
The latter two symptoms make the disease especially deadly, as they can cause severe dehydration and intestinal damage.
Deaths caused by parvo often occur within 48 to 72 hours following the onset of these visible symptoms. Accordingly, experts, and Johnson herself, encourage dog owners to seek treatment immediately if something seems wrong.
“If (your dog) becomes violently sick with diarrhea, contact someone as soon as possible so they don’t become dehydrated and have to become hospitalized,” Johnson recommends. “They dehydrate until they die.”
Once they are infected, dogs cannot be directly treated for parvo. Instead, they are given injections which strengthen their immune system as they fight the virus.
Proper treatment yields a 90 percent survival rate. However, the treatments are costly - much more costly than the distemper vaccination which prevents the disease in the first place.
As such, Johnson strongly urges dog owners to vaccinate their pets if they haven’t already.
“The number one thing is to vaccinate,” she says, emphatically.
She suspects the county’s low vaccination rate is one of the reasons parvo cases have been appearing in the area recently.
“The problem here is there are a lot of unvaccinated dogs,” Johnson says.
According to Johnson, there has already been one parvo case in Blue Earth and one in Elmore, along with a few cases in Bricelyn.
“From what I have heard, there have been several more cases,” she adds.
Complicating matters, parvo’s spread is difficult to track. Cases do not have to be reported to the state.
However, Johnson has joined forces with Faribault County Sheriff Mike Gormley to tackle the county’s recent outbreak, keeping the public informed and keeping a close eye on potential cases.
Johnson also eagerly awaits the completion of the FCHS’s new facility, which will make addressing outbreaks much simpler in the future.
“We will have an isolation area,” she explains. “It couldn’t be better timing to have a new building.”
The FCHS’s eventual new home, located in Blue Earth’s former Papa D’s building at the West Industrial Park, still requires some renovation.
“We are waiting for drains to be put in at the new building,” Johnson says. She predicts the process will take another six weeks.
Additional renovations will include the installation of six-foot chain link fencing, parts for which the FCHS will gladly accept as donations from the community.
“We are stretched pretty thin,” Johnson admits as she considers all that must be done before the new facility is ready.
However, she remains optimistic, citing the generous support FCHS continues to receive from the community.
“The donations are phenomenal,” Johnson says. Recently, Tafco raised almost $1,000 at a FCHS fundraiser at the Faribault County Fair.
Once the FCHS relocates, Johnson is confident the organization’s ability to care for dogs like Glitz will improve astronomically.
“The more we discuss about the building, the more perfect it is for us,” she says.
Until then, however, Johnson and her fellow FCHS volunteers can only hope the community takes precautions to prevent parvo’s spread.
Johnson warns, “It only takes one dog.”