Two communities north of Boston are on alert after 15 dogs were killed in what the the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is describing as the worst dog parvovirus outbreak in at least five years.
The outbreak of the highly contagious viral disease in Lowell and Lawrence prompted the MSPCA to organize free vaccine clinics to those residents over the weekend.
Though officials hope to keep the virus contained, it is common for the virus to pop up in densely populated urban areas like Boston.
As of Sunday, nearly 700 free vaccines had been handed out, according to Michael Keiley, director of Noble Family Animal Care and Adoption Center at MSPCA Nevins Farm.
"Parvovirus outbreaks don't happen as frequently as they used to" said Keiley. "It used to be an incredibly problematic issue for shelters. We often find that outbreaks will happen in urban areas where a lot of dogs interact and residents can't afford to get vaccines."
Keiley said several alarmed dog owners have reached out to the MSPCA for answers, and he is telling them the common canine distemper vaccines protect the animals.
Although the vaccines run between $15 and $25, coinciding exam fees can cost upwards of $70 and often deter low-income dog owners from vaccinating their pets.
The viral disease causes vomiting, loss of appetite, fever, diarrhea, and dehydration, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, and can kill a dog within 48 to 72 hours of contraction.
Pet owners are urged to vaccinate their dogs and avoid bringing potentially unvaccinated dogs to places where the virus might be found, as the virus is transmitted through dog-to-dog contact or contact with contaminated stool or other materials.
"I feel badly that we can't offer the free vaccines to everybody, but our goal right now is to try to contain the outbreak," said Keiley. "We are focusing our energies on that."
No specific drug is available to kill the virus, according to the AVMA, however it can be treated by combatting dehydration by replacing electrolyte and fluid losses, controlling vomiting and diarrhea, and preventing secondary infections until the dog’s immune system is able to fight the virus.
Due to the highly contagious nature of parvovirus, infected dogs must be isolated in order to prevent the spread of the infection.