Puppy with blood in poo.

It’s one of the most common consults we see as small animal veterinarians. There are a lot of things that can cause it, so we ask owners a number of questions to try and narrow down the most likely explanation. At the top of our list of questions is “Has your puppy had his vaccines?” And we breathe a huge sigh of relief when the answer is “Yes,” and we are presented with a vaccination record signed by a fellow veterinarian.

Sadly, all too often the answer is “No, I’ve been meaning get around to that. Can you do that today?” or “The breeder told me he was but I didn’t get a card,” or sometimes “No, I don’t believe in vaccines.” Without any evidence that a vaccine has been administered correctly by a veterinarian, or even that a vaccine has been given at all, it would be irresponsible of us to assume that the puppy is fully protected. And unfortunately any animal that is unwell cannot receive a vaccine because the immune system is already working hard to fight an illness, so asking it to deal with a vaccine can be overwhelming. This means that it can cause an existing illness to worsen, and that the vaccine itself may not be effective. So we reach to the refrigerator, not for a vaccine, but for a Parvovirus test.

The next several minutes are nerve wrecking as we wait for the test to run. With a bit of luck, the result is negative, and with a few more questions we identify another likely cause of the bloody poo. Common culprits include:

* Change in diet – Puppies (and kittens) have very sensitive tummies. Sudden changes in food can cause diarrhoea and/or blood in the faeces. We always recommend that any pet’s food be change gradually over a period of 7-10 days.

* Dietary indiscretion – This is a fancy term for eating something they shouldn’t, a very common scenario in puppies as they tend to explore the world with their mouths. It can cause problems for the same reasons as sudden changes in diet, as well as the potential to pick up a variety of infections.

* Parasites – Gastrointestinal worms tend to be the most common cause, though there are also few other parasites that can cause diarrhoea. Many owners are told that their new pups have been dosed for worms, which can certainly be a sign of a sensible breeder, but remember that not all parasite treatments are created equal. There are a variety of medications available, each of which will treat a different assortment of parasites, so it is important to seek advice from your vet to ensure that your pet has been covered for the most relevant ones based on his/her symptoms and likely exposure.

Inevitably though, some Parvovirus tests will turn up positive. And with great concern we must inform owners that their beloved little pup has a potentially fatal infection. We generally try to avoid scaring owners with statistics, but the truth is that the mortality rate of Parvovirus infection in puppies can be as high as 90% without aggressive treatment. In the best case scenario, the gloves and plastic gowns come out, the puppy is admitted to hospital, and spends the next several days to weeks in an isolation ward being treated with intravenous fluids, antibiotics, nutritional support, and intensive nursing care. As a veterinary team we do everything we can, and thankfully often do succeed in returning the pup to health, but it does require significant investment of both time and money. And sadly, despite our best efforts, not every puppy will survive. It is absolutely heart-wrenching for vets and owners alike to watch a vibrant young life withered away and lost to a preventable disease.

Please believe that we want the best for your little pup just as much as you do. We know how quickly they become part of the family, and we love hearing the stories of mischief and mayhem, the difficulties in house training, how well he gets on with the cat (or how much they torment each other!). We also understand that between breeders, vets, fellow pet owners, and Dr. Google, there is a lot of information available, and it can be difficult to suss out what is the best advice. This can be particularly true with vaccines, which are a frequent point of controversy these days. Our job is work with you to make the best decision for your pet’s health, so please, talk to us about your concerns. But please also trust us when we say we would much rather reach to the fridge for a vaccine than a Parvo test.

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