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Viral home remedy won’t cure your dog’s ‘cat flu’ – and could be toxic

With the rising cost of living and high vet costs, pet owners are responding to a home concoction shared on social media. But they are well-advised to steer clear.

This article is more than 1 year old

  • Parvovirus causes the most damage to a dog’s gut, which leads to a loss of fluids, and puppies die from sepsis or severe dehydration.

  • The seasonal virus can’t be destroyed, but the best treatment is to control diarrhoea and vomiting in the animal, ideally while it is hospitalised and isolated, and prevent other infections.

  • Potassium permanganate could make symptoms worse and be lethal, whereas the other ingredients mentioned in social media posts won’t cause harm but won’t cure the virus either.

A home remedy for “cat flu” among dogs, the highly contagious disease also known as parvovirus, has been briskly circulating on social media.

One post on a public Facebook group has been viewed over 252,000 times in less than two weeks, while earlier similar posts date from November 2021 and April 2022

The post describes parvovirus and includes detailed instructions for a home remedy to cure dogs of the disease. It advises pet owners to feed their sick dogs a raw egg, followed by potassium permanganate crystals dissolved in water. Protein powder and a deworming pill are also thrown into the mix.

Some readers of the post were grateful. “Dankie vir jou raad gaan dit beslis iewers plaas want dit is nie almal wat die finansies nou het nie want Covid het ons almal 'n knou gegee,” one commented in Afrikaans. 

This loosely translates as: “Thanks for your advice, will definitely share it. Not everyone has money now, because Covid has hit us all hard”. 

Others were more sceptical. “This is dangerous advice. Please take your animals to the vet,” wrote one.

What are the facts around cat flu, and is this widely shared remedy really an affordable lifesaver? 

What’s the fuss around parvovirus? 

Data on the number of dog owners in South Africa is hard to come by, with the last nationally representative study conducted in the 1990s. The National Council of the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) told Africa Check it had asked the government for questions on pet ownership to be included in the national census but had not received a response. 

Parvovirus is potentially deadly for dogs. And the high cost of hospitalisation for sick pets means not everyone can afford proper treatment.

Parvovirus, officially canine parvovirus enteritisaffects many parts of a dog’s body, but usually causes most damage to the dog’s gut, or gastrointestinal tract. It is one of the most common causes of disease and death in dogs around the world. 

Though the virus can affect all dogs, some breeds like the Labrador Retriever and the German Shepherd are more vulnerable, and it usually affects puppies between six and 20 weeks old. 

“It is highly infectious with the virus remaining viable in the environment for a number of months,” Julia van Draanen, a representative from the Valley Farm Animal Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, told Africa Check. 

“The virus is shed in the faeces of infected dogs and contact with these faeces can result in the spread of the virus via, for example, a person’s shoes.”     

Puppies infected with the virus are “terribly nauseous and in a lot of pain”, Dr Anthea Fleming, a veterinarian at Rivonia Village Vet in Johannesburg, told Africa Check. The virus progresses quickly, causing complications that can be deadly. “It’s a very aggressive virus,” Fleming said. 

Because parvovirus affects the gut, it makes it difficult for a dog’s intestine to absorb nutrients, causes loss of fluids, and breaks down the body’s defences against harmful bacteria. Other symptoms include tiredness, sudden high fever, severe diarrhoea and appetite loss. But the only way to know for sure if a dog is infected is by testing a stool sample. 

Puppies often die as a result of sepsis – infection in the bloodstream – or severe dehydration. Around 90% of puppies infected with parvovirus will die if not treated. But this fatality rate drops to between 10 and 15% with proper care. Most deaths happen between 48 and 72 hours after symptoms start.

We asked Van Draanen how the virus presents at the Valley Farm Animal Hospital. She said that spring and early summer, from October to January each year, was generally “parvovirus season”. She said their hospital saw around 60 cases in this period. 

“We are based in an affluent suburb … We do not do welfare or outreach projects where one would expect to see much higher numbers of cases,” she said. 

The Animal Welfare Society (AWS) is a non-profit organisation that offers veterinary services to disadvantaged communities in Cape Town, South Africa. “We have had to contend with several sporadic outbreaks of parvovirus”, their spokesperson told Africa Check. “The virus is prevalent on the Cape Flats due to large numbers of unvaccinated dogs.” 

The Cape Flats refer to the resource-poor communities on the outskirts of the city of Cape Town. 

“The cost of treatment is exorbitant. The cost of prevention is manageable. Sadly, by the time we see many patients, it is too late,” the AWS said.

There is no cure for parvovirus – but it can be prevented through vaccination

There is no way to destroy parvovirus once a dog is infected. Treatment involved controlling vomiting and diarrhoea, to help the puppy retain fluid and nutrients, and preventing other infections like sepsis, Van Draanen told Africa Check.

The goal is to support the dog's immune system in fighting off the infection. 

According to researchers, in-hospital treatment is the gold standard for parvovirus. “These patients are hospitalised in an isolation ward and receive intensive care,” Van Draanen said. But “in-patient care by no means carries a 100% guarantee of success and is very expensive”.

Fortunately, puppies can be vaccinated to prevent parvovirus in the first place.

“Canine parvovirus is a vaccine-preventable disease. It is due to the huge number of unvaccinated dogs in South Africa that the disease is so persistent,” Van Draanen said.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association considers the parvovirus vaccine a “core” vaccine for puppies around the world. 

Research indicates that the vaccine is generally effective in preventing disease in dogs.

Potassium permanganate can be toxic

Faced with the prospect of expensive vet bills and the deadliness of the disease, pet owners may be tempted to turn to home remedies. But these can be dangerous. 

Potassium permanganate, also known as Condy’s crystals, is used as an antiseptic and to clean wounds -in both people and animals. We asked Fleming about its use in veterinary practice. “It’s a disinfectant”, she said but warned that if swallowed, it “can be toxic in high doses”. 

This is supported by various studies. In mice, it has been shown to cause stomach problems, including diarrhoea, often leading to death. In high doses, it can be lethal to humans

The South African Veterinary Association recommends using stronger disinfectant products like bleach on floors and bedding to kill the parvovirus. But this does not mean that disinfectants should be given to dogs to eat.

“There’s no way that treatment is going to fix parvo in a puppy,” Fleming said of the concoction in the viral social media post.

The post also recommends giving dogs egg, protein powder and deworming pills. Although protein powder or an egg could be a good source of protein, a puppy may not be able to keep the food down because of the nausea and vomiting that comes with the virus, Flemming said. 

But deworming pills were unlikely to cause harm and could help remove other parasites. Research indicates that survival rates are often lower when puppies are infected with parasites, on top of parvovirus. 

If admitting a puppy to a veterinary clinic or hospital was too expensive, having the puppy examined by a vet and then taken home was better than nothing, Fleming said.

Though the best survival rates are still from in-hospital care, the virus can be confirmed in a vet consultation and any other infections can be ruled out or treated. 

Out-patient treatment still aims to stabilise fluid, blood sugar and nutrient levels, as well as manage pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. But this is largely done by feeding and injecting medicine rather than by an intravenous (IV) drip, as would be done in a hospital setting. 

The takeaway? Vaccinate your puppy against parvovirus

A home remedy for curing parvovirus in dogs is fast circulating on social media. But there is currently no effective cure for parvovirus, and the best treatment, based on evidence, is to support the puppy while it fights the disease on its own. 

Survival rates are highest when infected dogs are given intensive care in hospital, but more affordable at-home treatments can still be helpful. But these don’t involve the dog ingesting disinfectants, like potassium permanganate, which can be toxic if swallowed.

“Parvo is a deadly disease and lots of puppies die from it”, Fleming told Africa Check. She emphasised that vaccination to prevent infection in the first place was the best way to fight the virus. “It is still possible to get the virus, but much less likely”.

We therefore rate the claim as false.

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