Protecting Your Pup from Canine Herpesvirus
Here's how to carefully care for pregnant dogs and newborn puppies to keep them from contracting the infection.
Dog herpes is most dangerous to young puppies under four weeks of age. The bad news is that this virus is quite common and is often fatal in young pups, but the good news is that it can be prevented with common sense care for new mama dogs and their litters.
Can Dogs Get Herpes?
Unfortunately, yes. Dogs have their own species-specific strain of herpes known as canine herpesvirus (CHV). It is spread through bodily fluids from the nose, mouth, and genitals. Adult dogs can contract the virus from close contact with an infected dog (such as sniffing each other, licking each other, or even playing or sharing bowls), and puppies can get it from their mothers before or after birth. Herpes is common, and most dogs who interact with dogs from other households will be exposed at some point in their lives.
Once an adult dog has contracted herpes, he or she can become a carrier and may shed the virus throughout life. Stress or illness can cause flare-ups of the virus and make the dog symptomatic.
Dogs of any age can get herpes, but young females and baby puppies are at the most risk of having negative effects. Healthy adult dogs often have very mild symptoms or none at all, while pregnant females can miscarry. Puppies are often unable to fight the virus and can die within 48 hours of showing symptoms. Puppies are most vulnerable if their mother is infected within the last three weeks of pregnancy or if they or their mother is infected within the first three weeks after birth.
Herpes in dogs is usually diagnosed based on the clinical signs (more on that later), but there are also a couple tests that can be run.
Titer testing measures antibodies to the canine herpesvirus in your dog's blood. A positive titer means that the dog has been exposed to the virus. Comparing titer levels several weeks apart can indicate whether or not your dog has an active infection that is causing illness or if the positive titer is an incidental finding.
PCR testing looks for the DNA of the actual virus. This test can be done using swabs from the throat, eyes, prepuce, or vagina, as well as blood or tissue samples.
Is Herpes the Same in Dogs and Humans?
Nope! There are several different herpes viruses, but each strain has a preferred species host. Humans get human herpes, cats get feline herpes, and dogs get canine herpes. There is no sharing between species.
If your dog is diagnosed with herpes, you only need to worry about her passing it on to other dogs, especially young puppies who are the most vulnerable.
Symptoms of Herpes in Adult Dogs
Adults dogs who get canine herpes may have no symptoms at all. Others can show mild signs that look like an upper respiratory infection (URI), eye infection or illness, or sores on the external genitalia.
Symptoms of herpes in adult dogs include:
- Lesions on the prepuce or vulva
- Discharge from the eyes
- Corneal ulcers
Many of these symptoms are non-specific, and can appear with a variety of illnesses. Because of this, many owners don't know that their dog has herpes. That's why it's important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice these signs.
Symptoms of Herpes in Puppies
Herpes infection in puppies is much more serious, especially if the puppy is under four weeks old. These puppies may show signs of illness or can die suddenly.
Symptoms of herpes in puppies include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Discharge from the nose
- Poor appetite
- Soft, abnormally colored stools (can be grey, yellowish, or greenish)
- Odorless stools
- Persistent crying or other signs of distress
- Bloated belly
The virus typically incubates for four to six days, and death can occur within 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms. The mortality rate is very high for puppies under four weeks old who contract herpes.
Puppies that survive herpes infection can go blind or develop neurological issues later in life. This is why it's super important to prevent your pup from contracting this viral infection starting from even before birth.
How Is Herpes in Dogs Treated?
Sadly, there is no cure for herpes in dogs. Treatment is focused on supportive care, managing any secondary infections, and attempting to stall viral replication to give the dog's immune system a chance to fight back.
Most adult dogs show only mild symptoms and recover on their own (but they can still be carriers and pass the virus on to other dogs). Antibiotics may be beneficial for dogs with upper respiratory symptoms and eye drops help to alleviate symptoms affecting the eyes.
Puppies may also be treated with eye drops and/or antibiotics depending on their symptoms and if any secondary infections are present. Puppies can also be given antibodies to help fight the infection. The antibodies can come from the milk of a mother dog that has previously had herpes, or from the serum (blood) of a dog that has recovered from infection. Antibodies are most beneficial if they are given before the puppy shows symptoms. Supportive care may include fluids, keeping the pup warm, and removing discharge that crusts on the eyes or nose. Antiviral medications can be beneficial in some cases.
How To Prevent Herpes in Dogs
Preventing herpes infection in adult dogs is difficult unless you completely isolate your pooch from other dogs. Thankfully most adult dogs have very mild symptoms or none at all. Instead, most prevention efforts center around protecting the puppies under four weeks of age who are most vulnerable.
Before Breeding a Litter
If you are considering breeding your female dog, have blood sent out for a herpes titer. This test will tell you if your dog has been exposed to the herpes virus and if she has antibodies. If she is positive, that means she has antibodies and can pass them on to her puppies through her milk, protecting them from the virus. If she is negative, she does not have any antibodies to pass on to her puppies.
Mothers who have a negative herpes titer or who have not been tested should be isolated from other dogs for at least three weeks before birth (and it's a good idea with all pregnant dogs, as there are plenty of other diseases out there that can jeopardize puppies' health). If mama contracts herpes in the final three weeks of pregnancy, she will pass the virus on to her newborn puppies and won't have generated enough antibodies to protect them from it. Herpes infection in a pregnant dog can also cause miscarriage and stillbirth.
First 3 to 4 Weeks of Life
Make sure that newborn puppies nurse soon after birth so that they will get the maximum benefit of the antibodies in the mother's colostrum. This is especially important for bitches with a positive herpes titer, as they can pass on herpes antibodies to their puppies and protect them from the disease.
If the mother has a negative herpes titer or has not been tested, she and her puppies should continue to be isolated for at least the first three weeks after birth. This will limit the risk of contracting herpes from another dog during this time period. If the mother is infected while her puppies are this young, she can pass it on to them and they will likely die.
With all litters, it is important to practice good hygiene. Keep the area where the puppies and their mother live clean and dry. Also keep their living space warm, as the herpes virus likes cooler body temperatures and young puppies have trouble regulating their temperature.
Vaccines and Testing
There is a vaccine for canine herpes virus that is designed to be given to pregnant dogs, but at this time it is only available in Europe.
If a puppy in your litter passes away suddenly, contact your veterinarian ASAP to see what the best next steps might be to ensure the health of the rest of the litter. They may suggest you perform a necropsy to determine if CHV was the cause of death, or something else.
Testing is also beneficial if a female dog miscarries or if a closed kennel is experiencing frequent miscarriages. There are several diseases that can cause miscarriage and stillbirth (some of which can even be transmitted to humans), so it is vital to find out what is causing the problems.
Many dogs contract herpes at some point in their lives. Luckily adult dogs usually have mild symptoms and generate antibodies to fight the infection. Young puppies are the most vulnerable, and can be protected by keeping them and their mothers away from other dogs and knowing whether or not the mama dog has a positive herpes titer.