This past January, dog flu spread widely across the U.S. Cases were reported in Arkansas, Missouri, California, Colorado, Washington, and in February it was reported in Oregon as well. One clinic in San Francisco saw 50 cases in just two weeks, and the disease has been spreading to areas that have not been hit before. Like the infamous kennel cough (bordetella), dog flu highly contagious, infecting about 80 percent of the animals that are exposed to it. And as with kennel cough, it spreads most quickly in kennels, boarding centers, shelters and dog day care facilities.
This year’s strain of dog flu considerably more serious than in most years. It causes sniffling, sneezing and coughing in dogs, just as it does in people. (other symptoms may include fever, lethargy and reduced appetite.) Some dogs contract the virus but remain asymptomatic, but at the other extreme, in some dogs it may develop into a bacterial infection (e.g., pneumonia) which can be very serious. If not treated properly, the mortality rate of dog flu may run as high as 10 percent, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
Canine influenza has received a fair amount of media attention this year although it is by no means a nationwide epidemic. Rather, it has been concentrated in two geographic regions – central California (including the Bay Area), and Kentucky/northern Ohio.
Fortunately, dog flu does not pass from dogs to people or vice versa, but it can be passed from one dog to another via leashes or human clothing. Dog owners whose dogs are coughing or showing other signs of respiratory disease should not expose their dog to other dogs. Also, clothing, equipment, surfaces, and hands should be cleaned and disinfected after exposure to dogs showing signs of respiratory disease.
There are two strains of canine flu. The most common, H3N2 is an avian flu virus that adapted to infect dogs. A different variant of H3N2 infects humans, and yet another has been reported to infect cats. The canine version was first detected in dogs in South Korea in 2007 and has since been reported in China and Thailand. It was first detected in the United States in April 2015 but it is not known how exactly how it was introduced here.
A rarer and more severe form of the virus, H3N8, was first observed among a group of racing greyhounds at a track in Florida in 2004, but it had been observed in horses (and was known as “equine flu”) about 40 years before. Scientists believe the virus jumped from horses to dogs. Counting from then until the flu season in 2015, canine H3N8 had occurred in at least 36 states (but not in every state, in every year).
Basically, the treatment for most cases involves supportive care: extra water, rest (good luck with Kerries!) and no exposure to other dogs until all symptoms are gone (the AVMA recommends a full three weeks). If the symptoms seem serious, call your vet, who may want to administer a cough suppressant to help alleviate airway irritation or sometimes an antibiotic to ward off a secondary bacterial infection, like pneumonia. In severe cases, the vet may prescribe medications to reduce the swelling that may be linked with the virus.
If you live in one of the regions where canine influenza is common this year, vaccination might be something to consider. Obviously vaccination is too late if your Kerry has already developed a case of flu, but if he or she does not yet have the virus but is often exposed to other dogs, it might yet be worthwhile to get the vaccine. (Be sure to call your vet’s office first, to make sure they have the vaccine available. Likewise, there are bivalent vaccines (for both H3N8 and H3N2) that might be worth adding to your dog’s yearly vaccination protocol, if he or she is likely to be a kennel or day care facility quite frequently.
Dog flu is not something that should worry most owners, but as with the human version of the illness, it does merit being a little more careful during flu season and being informed about what to do if your dog should happen to contract the disease.