Dog Flu: A Concern for Dog and Cat Lovers

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In 2007, a new canine disease, a type of dog influenza, the H3N2 flu strain, was discovered in South Korea. It is thought to have originated in birds and then mutated, moving from Asia to the United States in 2015.

By May 2017, the disease had been detected in 30 states, including larger outbreaks in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. The worst epidemic occurred in Chicago in 2015, where more than 1,000 dogs were affected.

Unlike human flu, the dog flu is not seasonal. For most dogs, the disease is mild and lasts only a week, sometimes two. The virus infects the respiratory tract, causing inflammation. Dogs will sneeze and cough and some may have a fever. They will lose their appetite and act lethargic, preferring to sleep. But, with a small percentage of dogs that catch the flu, an infection can turn into bacterial pneumonia, which can cause serious complications. Dogs that show symptoms are contagious up to 30 days. Few dog flu cases are fatal and dogs who get the flu recover with no lasting complications.

The symptoms make it easy to confuse with other diseases such as kennel cough, but vets can use blood tests or nasal swabs to confirm a diagnosis. A veterinarian may also recommend chest x-rays.

This disease is highly contagious; almost all dogs that are exposed will end up with the flu, and although some may show no symptoms, they can still spread the virus. Dogs that frequent dog shows, training groups, dog spas, dog daycare and boarding facilities are most likely to catch it. Dog parks are ideal for spreading the disease since dogs often greet each other by sniffing. People can spread the disease on their hands. Dogs that travel with their owners and rescue dogs are also at risk for catching the flu.

It’s often spread by sneezes and coughs; a dog cough or sneeze can spread the virus 20 feet, but the virus can also stay on soft surfaces for a day and on hard surfaces for up to two days. If your dog is exposed or diagnosed, be sure to wash bowls, bedding, toys, even doorknobs and human hands and clothing–anything that might carry the virus.

Most dogs that simply stay at home or go for walks with their people are at very low risk for catching the flu. But especially in areas where cases of dog flu has been diagnosed, any dog that stays in a room with another dog for an extended period can be at risk, according to experts at the University of Wisconsin.

Since the disease is new, most dogs have not been exposed to it, which means that they have not had a chance to build up a resistance. There are no treatments except for controlling the symptoms.

But, said Colin Parrish, PhD, Professor of Virology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, there are vaccines, usually not expensive, which can either prevent the flu or make it less severe. “They’re about 50 to 60 percent effective. A vaccinated dog has half the chance of getting the disease if exposed and if they are infected, they will have a milder version with milder symptoms,” he said.

Because of the risk, many dog-related businesses are now asking that their canine clients be vaccinated. “If I were running a dog boarding kennel and someone came in with an infected dog, that would be quite a risk,” said Parrish. “But it depends on the location. If it were in Chicago, then I’d do it, but if I were in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t until the virus spreads there.”

The vaccine has been effective for both the H3N2 and the H3N8 strains and requires an additional booster 14 days after the first shot. The H3N8, first recognized in 1960 in horses, had been identified in dogs in 42 states, but it’s thought to have died out.

While rare, it’s also possible for cats to catch dog flu. Their symptoms are nearly identical to that of dogs but they can also suffer from excessive drooling and lip smacking. The term “cat flu” is often used for any general upper respiratory illness in cats, so cats with symptoms should be taken for a vet visit. Currently, there is no specific vaccine for cats to prevent dog flu.

According to the CDC, no cases of dog flu have spread to humans. “There is a general idea that the flu mutates, but this leap doesn’t happen often,” said Parrish. “It’s quite rare despite popular belief. It’s been in dogs for 12 years so far, so it’s low risk for humans.”

While the dog flu isn’t currently found in every state, dog owners should not panic, but they should keep current on the news of the flu in their area so they will be ready if the flu reaches them. ■

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