What does Parvo smell like?

Parvo smells like bad news. Very bad news. You know your dog, you know his bathroom habits and more than you’d like to know about their poop. If you see your dog acting differently, feeling unwell and you notice a distinctive strong sickly-sweet smell coming from their feces, you have to assume it’s Parvo and you have to act very fast.  Parvo is a terrible disease and without treatment your dog will die a miserable death. 

When your dog is in that stage that you can already smell the Parvo on him it might already be too late, so you need to educate yourself on this disease, learn how to recognize it from the first symptoms and how you can prevent your dog from getting it. Hint, vaccinate puppies against Parvo.

What is Parvo?

Oddly enough, Parvo is a disease that appeared in dogs only a few decades ago. The first cases recorded in dogs go back to 1978. Experts say the canine parvovirus infection (CPV) is closely related to cat distemper. The virus that only affected cats until recently is thought to have mutated and crossed species to infect dogs.

There are two types of this parvovirus that can infect dogs. The first type, CPV-1, can be found in dogs suffering from diarrhea, but it is not the deadly kind.

The one you should be afraid of is CPV-2 which can and will kill a dog that doesn’t get immediate and aggressive treatment.

How does a dog get Parvo?

The worst thing about the parvo virus is that it is extremely resistant. Even common disinfectants are unable to kill it and your dog can pick it off an apparently clean surface weeks after a sick dog pooped there. 

A dog can get Parvo through close contact with an infected dog’s feces. Unfortunately, dogs tend to stick their nose into any pile of poop they run into during their daily walk or to smell the rear end of any friend they meet. 

Another big problem is that Parvo has an incubation time of 4 to 7 days. During this time, the dog won’t present any symptoms and will seem perfectly fine, but he will be already shedding millions of viruses through their feces and this is what makes Parvo so frighteningly contagious. 

If you run into another pet owner on the street and your dogs greet each other by a close inspection of each other’s butt, there’s a great risk your dog will get the virus if the other one is infected.

The virus will be present in a weeks-old dry feces or even on the ground where a sick dog did his business, even if the owner dutifully cleaned after theri animal. The virus can live in the ground and survive cold winter days, only to emerge fresh and ready to attack when spring comes. 

The virus can also be transmitted through indirect contact, if your dog touches or licks a contaminated object, like a food bowl or a leash. He can also get the virus from the hands or clothing of a person who handled an infected dog.

What does Parvo smell like?

Once it gets into a new host, the dog targets rapidly-dividing cells, like those in the throat, bone marrow, as well as the stomach and intestinal lining. The worst damage is dealt at the intestinal leve, causing severe vomiting and diarrheal and it is this that kills the dog. 

This is also what gives Parvo it’s distinctive smell. Practically, the sickly-sweet smell coming off your dog is the smell of the GI tract lining cells destroyed and eliminated through vomit and feces. 

Many pet owners reported they could smell Parvo on their dogs. Indeed, it may seem like the whole dog stinks of Parvo or only his breath, but, in fact, what you’re smelling is the diarrhea torturing the poor thing.

What are the main symptoms of Parvo?

It takes the virus a few days to multiply and start wreaking havoc on the dog’s body. Here are the main signs that should send you running to the vet’s office:

  • Bloody diarrhea (light yellow or mustard colored)
  • Vomiting (clear, yellow or brown, with or without mucus present)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Lethargy

A dog or a puppy suffering from Parvo will appear poorly. It’s more than an upset stomach and the dog will appear to be weak and very much under the weather. And then, of course, you’ll notice the smell. Most pet owners describe it as sickly-sweet, others say it’s an unbearable stench, like rotting garbage. 

Bottom line, if your dog’s poop smells very different than normal don’t waste time wondering whether it’s sickly-sweet or not. Go to the vet and have the dog tested for Parvo right away.

How is Parvo treated?

Parvo is a fast-acting disease. A strong and healthy animal may put up more of a fight, but the disease can kill a dog with a weak immune system in as little as 2 or 3 days. Treating it like a common case of diarrhea and putting the dog on a bland diet won’t help at all. In fact, you’ll notice the dog cannot keep anything down and will vomit whatever food you give him. 

Dehydration is a main concern, especially for a puppy so try to give him water, even if he throws up. If he doesn’t want to drink, squirt some water into his mouth with a plastic syringe. Keep doing that while you contact the vet and schedule an emergency appointment. 

Parvo is caused by a virus and as you know antibiotics don’t kill viruses. There is no specific cure for Parvo. The vet will offer supportive care, especially electrolytes to correct the imbalances in the dog’s body and combat dehydration. The idea is to keep the dog alive and strong enough to fight off the virus. In most cases, the dog will be hooked on an IV to get electrolytes treatment or he might need a plasma transfusion.

The problem is that the virus also attacks the dog’s immune system so he’ll have less white cells to kill the virus.

At the same time, the dog might be put on antibiotics to prevent sepsis. The reason is that once the dog’s stomach and intestinal lining is badly destroyed, bacteria may get into the bloodstream causing sepsis. 

How can I treat Parvo at home?

This refers to the period after you’ve seen a vet and your dog has been put on fluids to correct electrolyte imbalance. If the vet decides oral or subcutaneous fluids are enough for your dog in his present conditions, chances are he will be sent home. You will have to give your dog the prescribed medication and monitor him constantly. The doctor might also give your dog anti-nausea medication to stop the vomiting. 

When the dog is well enough to hold down food, you can feed him small meals of bland and highly-digestible food. You should give your dog plain boiled rice and plain boiled chicken breast (with no bones whatsoever). Other foods recommended for dogs with Parvo are oatmeal made from unprocessed whole grains, without sugar or additives, as well as ground beef (also boiled and unsalted) and sweet potatoes.

The dog should be on this special diet for at least a week, usually two, until he is fully recovered and can go back to his regular food.

Also, keep the dog well hydrated and watch him closely. Should his health take a turn for the worse at any time, go to the doctor immediately.

Now for the good news – a dog or puppy that manages to survive the first 3-4 days will probably make a full recovery. Estimates put the survival rate for Parvo anywhere between 60 and 90%, if the dog receives prompt treatment. Once a dog recovers from Parvo he will get durable immunity to the disease so you won’t have to go through this nightmare again.

How can you prevent Parvo?

With a highly-contagious virus that can survive on a surface for weeks or months there is no way to keep your dog from coming into contact with it. The only way to protect your dog is to vaccinate him as early as possible.

Parvo is very dangerous to puppies since they are so small and can get very sick and dehydrated from all the pooping and vomiting. Fortunately, young pups are protected against the disease by the colostrum in their mothers’ milk. This protection may last until the puppy is four months old. 

This is why you should vaccinate your puppy early, usually between the ages of 6 to 8 weeks. A puppy needs to get a second shot 3 or 4 weeks after the first one, and then a booster shot every year. 

Experts also recommend giving booster shots to female dogs two weeks before breeding them, so they have enough time to produce antibodies to transmit to their nursing puppies.

How do you clean the house after Parvo?

Since the virus is so resistant, cleaning the house once the dog gets well will be a very difficult task. The main advice is to throw away anything that you can. This refers to the dog’s bedding, bowls, even toys. Whatever may be contaminated should be double-bagged and thrown in the trash can. 

For the rest of the house, use a bleach solution. Normal soaps, alcohol and other disinfectants may be inefficient and you risk spreading the disease in your community. Bleach and scrub any surface and make sure to keep away the dog while you’re at it.

Closing thoughts

If your dog is stricken by an acute diarrhea and cannot hold anything down, do your duty and smell their feces. If you notice a sickly-sweet smell or any strong and unusual smell for that matter, assume the worst. It might be Parvo, in which case your dog needs immediate medical treatment. While you wait for the doctor to see your dog, make sure to give him water to keep him hydrated. Don’t bother with food, as he will probably vomit.

Parvo is treated with fluids to correct electrolyte imbalances, anti nausea medication and antibiotics to prevent a secondary bacterial infection. With early treatment, there’s a good chance the dog will survive and recover fully. If you don’t want to see your dog fighting for his life, make sure he gets his Parvo shots on time. 

Sarah Pulsen

Hello, I have been in love with dogs since I was a little girl. I became even more infatuated with them when I was told by my Mum that I couldn't own one. Since I left home there has rarely been a time in my life when I have lived without a dog. My current dog is a Collie Terrier cross, called Ian.