Canine herpes virus is a viral infection and a leading cause of puppy death. Puppies contract the virus through secretions or bodily fluids from their mother after she becomes infected, either before or after birth. The good news is adult dogs and puppies older than 3 weeks who become infected with the virus usually don't develop symptoms or become sick. Deaths from canine herpes typically occur in puppies ages 1 to 3 weeks old. Older puppies who become infected have a good chance of complete recovery.
After infection of herpes, the incubation period is usually between three to seven days. Symptoms typically appear in young puppies, less than 3 weeks old, and can include frequent crying, loss of appetite, respiratory difficulty, weakness, vomiting, lethargy, abdominal rashes, staggering gait, soft yellow-green feces, bruising, blindness and possibly a bloody nasal discharge. In most cases, puppies die within 24 to 48 hours after displaying symptoms. Adult dogs who become infected usually remain symptom-free. If symptoms do appear, respiratory distress and raised sores on their genitalia are the most common ones in both female and male adult dogs.
If the canine herpes virus is suspected in your puppy early enough, a veterinarian might be able to diagnose the illness from the symptoms alone and provide the necessary supportive care. Because it is highly contagious, the vet will make a determination if the other puppies in the litter are at risk, and if they need to be isolated and given immediate supportive care. In most cases, however, diagnosis is confirmed after performing a post-mortem examination on tissue from puppies who died from the virus or stillborn pups. Organs from the deceased puppy are examined for cells that display signs of herpes infection.
Today, there is no cure or specific treatment for herpes. Older puppies with a chance of survival can be force-fed, and treated with anti-viral and anti-diarrhea medication. Even if young puppies do survive, there's often irreparable damage to their kidneys, brain, lymphoid organs and liver. The main treatment is keeping the infected puppy warm with heating pads or lamps -- the body temperature of young pups is often too low to kill viruses, which is why they're so susceptible to certain illnesses. Adult dogs who become infected often recover without medical intervention, but they may become carriers and spread the virus, according to VAC Animal Hospitals.
No vaccine for canine herpes is currently available in the United States. While a vaccine is available in Europe, it has shown variable responses, according to VAC Animal Hospitals. The best way to protect the health of young puppies is by preventing the mother dog from coming into contact with infected adult dogs, both during her pregnancy and during the first three weeks after she gives birth, recommends the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
By Liza Blau
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: An Overview of Canine Herpesvirus
The Merck Veterinary Manual: Overview of Canine Herpesviral Infection
ASPCA: Canine Herpes
VCA Animal Hospitals: Herpesvirus in Dogs
About the Author
Liza Blau received a B.A. in English from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in fiction anthologies from Penguin Press, W.W. Norton, NYU Press and others. After healing her own life-threatening asthma by switching to a whole, natural foods diet, she founded the NYC Asthma Wellness Center. Blau counsels individuals on healing their own asthma and allergies with dietary and lifestyle changes.