The latest issue of Oprah’s magazine "O" features the icon talking about her recent puppy dog adoption drama involving canine parvovirus. It just goes to show that even the pets of the biggest celebrities in the world are not beyond the reach of common microscopic infectious pathogens.

A couple of months back, Oprah adopted two cocker spaniel puppies from a shelter in Chicago. Unfortunately, within two weeks they both came down with parvovirus infection and had to be hospitalized. I’m sure both dogs received top-of-the-line care with no expense spared, but even so one of the puppies died. The other puppy came very close to dying as well, but happily she apparently has now recovered completely and is doing just fine (or quite likely better than fine, considering who her new owner is!).

Oprah also mentioned how one of her other dogs, Solomon, also suffered from a parvo infection years ago, but that dog was over a year old when he became ill. It’s actually quite unusual for any dog to get parvo beyond one year of age – most adult dogs are not affected by the virus, unless perhaps their immune system is compromised for some reason.

These stories bring up a few interesting points to ponder:

It’s great to adopt an animal from a shelter and give a homeless animal a home. It is an act of great kindness that I don’t want to take anything away from in the least. However, it’s important to realize that you never know what shelter dogs may be carrying, nor how well vaccinated they are.

  • Even if the animals are vaccinated once at the shelter, the protective effect may be less than ideal if a properly timed vaccination series is not completed.
  • In this case the pups may have been exposed to parvo after leaving the shelter, but they could have just as easily been exposed at the shelter, which begs the question of what else might they have been carrying? Bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter are also particularly common in young dogs and cats (even healthy ones), and these are potentially zoonotic agents.

Young animals, particularly from shelters, are higher risk in terms of the infectious diseases they can carry and transmit. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be adopted, but it does mean taking some extra precautions for the first several weeks they’re in their new home. These include being very diligent about controlling stool contamination of any kind (which can be easier said than done during the house-training phase), preventing contact with high-risk individuals (e.g. young children, the elderly, anyone with a weakened immune system) and lots of handwashing on the part of everyone involved with the puppy (or kitten!).

Parvo is a very serious disease in puppies, yet people sometimes become a little complacent about vaccinating for parvo and other puppyhood diseases.   Remember, though, that the reason parvo has become so much less common than it used to be is largely because of widespread and effective vaccination.  I have to wonder about how well vaccinated Oprah’s dog Solomon was to get the disease at the age he did, but there could easily be other factors involved as well.  The virus is still out there, and if we become lax in our infection control practices – including decreasing exposure of puppies to the stool of other dogs, as well as vaccination – it’s waiting in the wings for its opportunity to move in. Even with the very best care the infection can still be fatal.

It’s also relevant to note that, as demonstrated by Solomon’s case, just because parvo is very uncommon in adult dogs doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to get it.  It’s important to always remain diligent.

Parvoviruses are quite species specific, so thankfully people cannot get parvovirus from dogs, but remember that puppies can get diarrhea from pathogens like Salmonella, which can be transmitted to people. There is also a human parvovirus which is the cause of Fifth disease. Just like the dog virus cannot infect people, the human virus cannot infect dogs.

Image source: