Solving the canine parvo problem

canine parvo
The overall goal of Paws for A Purpose is to help people in need care for—and vaccinate—their pets. Photo: Phill Jackson Photograhy

His frustration that so many puppies continue to die a horrible death from canine parvo because they haven’t been vaccinated has driven Dr Mark Kelman to devoting most of his career to fighting the disease. By Rob Johnson

It wasn’t the first time Dr Mark Kelman had seen parvovirus, but it stuck in his mind because of his helplessness over the situation. Because parvo is a horrible death for any animal to experience. Because a vaccine is so readily available. “I had to tell a woman and her two little kids that their two puppies had both come down with parvo, and we weren’t going to be able to save them—they were just too far gone,” he recalls. “It was just terrible, trying to break the news to them as to what was happening, and explain that this wasn’t something we could fix, because the puppies weren’t vaccinated.”

He was working as a vet for the RSPCA in Sydney, having moved over from Perth following his graduation from Murdoch University. While he’d seen some parvo in the west, it wasn’t really until he hit Sydney that he began to see it over and over again. “This is a disease that we absolutely can stop,” he says. “We have really good vaccinations, but we’re just not using them in the right place at the right time, on the right puppies. Why do we have to keep seeing these cases every year when we can be doing something to change it? Hence, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, essentially, my whole working career.”

If you’re going to tackle a cause, though, this is a good-sized one to tackle. The more you look at the spread of canine parvo, the more intimidating it becomes. It gets even harder when you’re fighting for attention during a global pandemic, when the attention of most pet owners is on an equally insidious, silent and deadly enemy.

New horizons

The three things that drew Dr Kelman to Sydney originally were veterinary surgery, the chance to be a TV star, and a girl. A noticeboard outside one of his lecture theatres back at uni had a call-out for new grads to work at one of the larger vet hospitals that also featured on a popular TV series. Things didn’t work out with the surgery, or the TV stardom, or the girl for that matter, but he’d escaped from Perth by then and was on a new path.

After a few years at the RSPCA and a couple more at a private clinic, he landed at Virbac Animal Health, first in technical services and then in vaccines. “So I got to see the whole situation from the other side,” he says. “One of the reasons to work in industry was because I wanted to get an idea of how that commercial world worked, and to see what I could do.

“Rather than just treating the cases, I could see the technology that was involved in saving the puppies. That was when I started to sort of think this is something I can do to try and change things for the better.”

While working at Virbac he convinced senior management to let him create a national disease surveillance system called Disease WatchDog. “There was nothing else like that existing at the time, and I could see that there was a gap. That project was able to detect over 20,000 cases of disease—not just parvo, but other diseases as well. But parvo was the main one that I created it for. As a result of that we started publishing the results from the disease surveillance system and doing some analysis on it.”

The data he was collecting was very attractive to epidemiologists, and soon he started helping research students, working closely with Professor Michael Ward, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Sydney. “We published a number of papers just from the Disease WatchDog data,” he says. “A lot were on some of the risk factors around parvo, and none of this research had ever been done, because nobody had ever created [something] just like this anywhere in the world before. That sort of set the foundation for what I’ve been doing with my PhD, and everything else.”

Rethinking strategy 

Fighting parvo is like a game of whack-a-mole. You contain it in one area and it will suddenly appear in another. The earliest serological reports for canine parvovirus come from grey wolves in Minnesota, USA, in the early 1970s (feline parvovirus is much older). “Scientists believe that it’s probably evolved either from the feline parvo or from an ancestor strain of feline parvo,” Dr Kelman explains. “But why suddenly in the late 1970s it’s come into existence is probably similar to what we’re currently seeing with the coronavirus pandemic. You have that unfortunate shift of sufficient mutations to suddenly make the virus more able to infect, and that combines with other epidemiological risk factors.”

We don’t really know why or how the virus made its way from the US to Europe. “Then it shifted very quickly from those areas to suddenly being a global pandemic, and no country has ever successfully reduced or eradicated parvo yet,” he adds. “It would be great to see whether Australia could be the first.”

The challenge faced by those fighting the virus is it doesn’t always occur when and where you expect (see box). 

This is a disease that we absolutely can stop. We have really good vaccinations, but we’re just not using them in the right place at the right time, on the right puppies.

Dr Mark Kelman, co-founder, Paws for A Purpose

“But it’s inconsistently consistent with the outbreaks that we see,” Dr Kelman adds. ““And the thing that frustrated me at the RSPCA was just that we were constantly on the back foot. Because there were all these puppies that were coming in and it was already too late. The way that I saw things was that we needed to approach the issue, on a bigger scale, collectively, and work together, rather than every vet clinic working independently trying to save puppies but nobody seeing the bigger picture. 

“To do that there had to a holistic approach. And I thought, if I’m going to put all this effort into trying to address this, then I’d rather take a bit of time, set up a system and then roll it out, so something that was scalable. If I’m going to do it, I want to do it right. Hence, putting in the time to understand what the problem was, and then to design something, and then to pilot it, and once it was working, to then scale it. That’s the approach.”

When he left Virbac, the organisation decided to close the Disease WatchDog initiative. “This was back in 2017. It gave us an opportunity to reinvent how we do disease surveillance for parvo.” 

canine parvo
Dr Kelman’s PhD research found canine parvovirus cases across Australia and estimated 20,000 cases occur annually. This map shows cases reported by veterinary clinics in 2016 and highlights ‘hotspot’ regions in rural areas.

The opportunity involved tackling the virus in a new way—before it had a chance to choose its own battlegrounds. He just needed a structure that could second-guess a virus.

Paws for A Purpose

“One of the things that I thought from the start was that the only way we’re going to be able to stop parvo would be if literally everyone works together on this, because it’s such a big thing,” says Dr Kelman. “So vet clinics are a big part of it, the media plays a role, and dog owners, and dog breeders. Councils have a lot of issues with parvo. But it needs someone to drive it.”

So Dr Kelman teamed up with Dr Michael O’Donoghue, Zoe Cobden-Jewitt, and Dr Victoria Hogg to create Paws for A Purpose, a charity and social enterprise set up with the goal of helping disadvantaged people—particularly the homeless or the elderly—to have and keep pets. It also created a structure to continue the Disease WatchDog initiative. “Parvo particularly targets people in socio-economically disadvantaged areas,” he explains. “It’s people in need, mostly, whose pets get parvo, and those people can’t afford to vaccinate in the first place, so their puppies die of this disease.

“The overall goal of the charity is to just help people in need with their pets, and it’s a sort of an umbrella goal. But as a charity, we’re still very young, and the parvo project has obviously taken up a lot of our resources. But we are also raising some money for people experiencing homelessness, and we’re still working on the pets and the elderly project, but then obviously with COVID, it’s the project everything’s on the back foot.”

One of the main sources of revenue for the charity is the sale of premium quality pet treats through veterinary clinics. “It’s a small product in a big market, so it’s not producing a lot of money, but it certainly produces enough to resource the charity to the point that we have needed, to get us to where we are today. The vet clinics have been very supportive in stocking the dog treats, and Greencross has been a great supporter right from the start – they initially said they’re happy to stock the product in any of their clinics that could sell them, and so we’ve got a lot of support from them, and so many other vet clinics have come aboard since as well, which has been great.”

Other plans include collaboration with local councils to help get heavily discounted vaccinations to puppy owners who are struggling financially, and fundraising projects to help pay for those vaccinations. Co-directors and volunteers (some of whom helped design and program the disease surveillance system) have all put in hundreds of hours to build the initiative. Some other work has also needed to be paid for in order to get it completed, and being a small charity, every dollar has had to count. “At the end of the day, everyone’s so passionate about animals and people, which is the overriding thing,” says Dr Kelman. “I think you have to be, to be involved in this sort of venture, but everyone plays their part, and it’s got us to where we are today.”

Getting the message out there

But perhaps one of the most vital roles is played by frontline vets, and to a lesser degree, the media. For people to be motivated to vaccinate their pets, they need to know of disease outbreaks. The harsh reality of dealing with the media is they only pay attention when there is a big story to be reported.

“Bringing attention to an issue around pets is difficult just because the media is so focused on politics and sports,” says Dr Kelman. “But when there is an outbreak, you really need a vet on the frontline doing interviews, and the photos, and for people to see the videos of the animals that are sick. That’s the way to get the message out. 

“I see one of our roles as sort of helping people understand the enormity of the problem, and obviously, hopefully being able to identify when things are happening before outbreaks are occurring. When there’s an outbreak within the vicinity of an area, we can detect that with our system. Whereas, it’s the frontline vets that are going to be the ones being interviewed, mostly. They can say, ‘Look, we have puppies dying at the moment, you need to vaccinate your animals’. The people who need to revaccinate, who can afford it, and who have the capacity, they’ll do that. Then all the other people we need to help, that’s where the charity comes in. If we can help those people, then we can stop their puppies from dying. We can stop them spreading the disease, and potentially we can get rid of it, or at least drastically reduce it.”

Parvo risk factors

While there’s still much to learn about canine parvovirus, Dr Kelman’s work from Disease WatchDog and now through Paws for a Purpose and through his PhD research, has pinned down a number of risk factors which may help predict—or stop—outbreaks.

What we know:

  • Vaccines work: “We do get vaccination failures and we don’t know all of the risks around those failures, but we know some of them.”.
  • Lower socio-economic areas have more cases: “Lack of vaccination has always been very likely a factor, but at the same time the lower socio-economic areas are also the rural areas, and there may be other factors involved because of that.”
  • Wild dogs can carry parvo: “One of the areas of the PhD has been to look at, for the first time, is whether wild dogs do in fact have infections of parvo and to look at the potential risk of that to the dogs on the urban fringe (and also the risk that domestic dogs might be re-infecting the wild dogs too).”

What we don’t know:

  • Why it appears: “We don’t know why cases are appearing when they are, and what we can do to reduce that risk apart from vaccinating.”
  • The role of the climate: “We can show there is a relationship between recent rainfall and cases, and even to an extent long and dry periods and cases. They were two fairly strong risk factors identified from some of the original research, but we still don’t yet know why that is.”
  • What role remoteness plays: “We also know that remoteness is a risk factor, but again, it wasn’t a strong data set. Are there are other reasons why remoteness is important, and so partly the reason to then look at the PhD was to get a better understanding of all of these risk factors.”

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