Five puppies from Lawrence have died after contracting a highly contagious and often fatal virus that is being blamed for more than a dozen canine deaths in Lowell.
But parvovirus is easily preventable — through a vaccine — and a coalition of animal rescue groups is working to contain its spread.
Starting Thursday, there will be four free parvovirus clinics for dog owners in Lawrence and Lowell, the two local hotspots.
MSPCA-Nevins Farm, local veterinarians, Lawrence animal control, the Lowell Humane Society and Merrimack Valley Feline Rescue Society are collaborating to protect as many local dogs as possible.
The clinics, which are free to pet owners in those two cities, are being funded through the Massachusetts Homeless Animal Fund, a Department of Agriculture program.
Should clinics be needed in other areas, those same groups will work to facilitate them, according to Michael Keiley, director of the Noble Family Animal Care and Adoption Center at Nevins Farm in Methuen.
"Five dogs died from something that's entirely preventable. We don't want any more dogs to die that don't need to die," Keiley said Wednesday. "That's why we jumped on the opportunity to set up clinics."
Puppies are at greatest risk, Keiley said, as are dogs with compromised health and some senior dogs. But all dogs can contract parvovirus — and soon die from it if not treated quickly.
It goes after the animal's gastrointestinal tract and immune system, presenting as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy and lack of energy. It's very contagious. The virus is spread through dog feces, but it's also carried on shoes, clothing and leashes.
If treated, many dogs survive. Most pets that contract the virus and are not under a veterinarian's care succumb.
It's considered a core vaccine, Keiley said, along with distemper, kennel cough and rabies. Dogs that receive routine veterinary care and dogs admitted to local shelters should be protected.
It's the animals that don't get routine medical care that are at risk, he said.
"We know budgets are tight, but it's spend $50 or the alternative — your dog could die," Keiley said. "It's important that people take it seriously."
Four infected puppies were brought to Nevins Farm from Lawrence, he said, but the virus was too far advanced to help them.
"These were very tough cases, they were all very sick," he said, "and treatment was not likely to be successful."
Those four puppies were euthanized and a fifth died at home, he said.
All dogs that come to Nevins Farm are vaccinated upon intake.
That's the case up the road at Salem Animal Rescue League in New Hampshire, too.
"First and foremost, every dog that walks through the doors at SARL is vaccinated for parvo," spokesman D.J. Bettencourt said. "There's a full series of vaccines for every dog that comes to us that we know is not vaccinated or if we are unsure."
SARL also accepts a number of transport dogs from other rescues, he said, but all must test free of the virus before they arrive in Salem.
Staff members and volunteers are aware of the virus in Massachusetts, he said, and are working to educate others about the threat.
"In the event the disease spreads into Southern New Hampshire, SARL would be in a position to host clinics like the MSPCA," he said.
For now, SARL is not accepting dogs from animal control in Lowell or Lawrence.
A parvovirus outbreak like this one is uncommon, but not unheard of, according to Rob Halpin, spokesman for the MSPCA.
The solution, he said, is to vaccinate as many dogs as possible in the areas where there are outbreaks. That, at this point, means Lowell and Lawrence.
"It's going to spread in areas where there's a concentration of animals that aren't vaccinated," he said.
He speculated on some of the reasons for the outbreak — socio-economic conditions, neighborhood dogs giving birth to puppies subsequently adopted and not treated by a veterinarian, distance to medical services.
But that's only speculation, Halpin said.
"That's why big shelters and rescues are always pushing spay/neuter," he said.
If an animal is spayed or neutered, he said, it's likely it also would receive core vaccinations.
Any pet owner wondering whether a pet is protected should call the animal's veterinarian to check, officials said. If not, get that dog vaccinated right away, they said.
Keiley said they're ready to vaccinate a lot of dogs, some 400 of them through the four scheduled clinics.
"I don't anticipate we'll run out of vaccine," he said, "but if we do, we'll do something next week."
Free parvovirus vaccination clinics for Lawrence, Lowell residents
MSPCA-Nevins Farm, 400 Broadway, Methuen, Thursday and Friday, from 3 to 6 p.m.
South Common Park, Lawrence, Sunday, from 9 a.m. to noon
Central Catholic School, Lawrence, Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m.