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Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Parvo scare could be detrimental to puppy training, despite slim risk

August 30. 2014 6:17PM

In the past couple of weeks, there has been near hysteria in some quarters about an outbreak of Parvovirus - a virus that affects mostly very young puppies. What is particularly troublesome to me about the media reports is the total lack of information. News outlets reported that 15 dogs in Lowell, Mass., have died of Parvo, yet an Internet search yields no further details - including important things for the public to know:

Were the dogs all housed in the same shelter (likely) or home? Were they recently transported from the South (also likely)? How old were they? Were they young puppies or adolescents that had not been inoculated against Parvo?

The answers to these questions would be helpful to dog owners, breeders and veterinarians and would likely relieve some fears. If the facts are as I suspect, Parvo is of no greater risk to the vast majority of dogs today than it was a week before this story hit the news.

Rather than providing helpful information, rather than reporting facts, some reporters interviewed dog owners on the street, asking how they "feel" about these dogs' deaths. How do you think a dog owner "feels?" Especially without factual information, dog owners feel concerned.

The result of this story is to create apprehension, to the detriment of many dogs and puppies. Dogs that have been inoculated against Parvovirus within the last three years (and likely far longer) have developed immunity to this virus and are at very little risk - very little. (The only reason for the three-year limit on immunity is that the research study to determine the effective length of immunity ended after three years.)

There is a serious, harmful effect of stories such as this latest media scare, which has historical precedent. The very first case of Parvovirus in dogs was diagnosed in a dog in New Hampshire in 1978, when a rough collie returning from a dog show showed unusual symptoms, ultimately discovered to be this "new" virus. (Another first in the nation for New Hampshire!)

Within two years of its discovery, Parvo had spread throughout the world. One of the offshoots of the quick spread of this virus was the recommendation by the vast majority of veterinarians and dog breeders to keep puppies at home and away from other dogs until 4 or 5 months of age. This recommendation resulted in several generations of unsocialized, nervous and fearful dogs.

This resulting temperament problems were of such monumental proportions that in 2008, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists published a position statement about the critical importance of early socialization (prior to 12 weeks of age) - recommending immunizing puppies and enrolling in puppy classes and socializing them starting at 8 weeks.

The position statement reads: "Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals, and experiences.

Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond.

In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.

Enrolling in puppy classes prior to three months of age can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of illness can be minimized."

We have been offering puppy classes to puppies as young as 8 weeks for more than 30 years (training thousands of puppies over the years). In all this time, we have had only three puppies that were attending our classes come down with Parvo, having contracted it prior to coming to class.

As soon as the owners called us to tell us their puppies were sick, we immediately called all the other puppy owners in the class to let them know that their puppy had been exposed to Parvo and to talk to their veterinarians. Not one other puppy in these classes came down with Parvo.

So the incredibly slim risk of contracting Parvo in a well-run training class or puppy play group is well worth taking because lack of early socialization affects a dog throughout its life.

Gail Fisher, a certified dog behavior consultant and author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.

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