Beware of the Dog Flu

Beware of the Dog Flu

By Steve Dale

It's that time of year. Flu shots are being offered again -- for people and for dogs.

It's not unusual to see Dr. Andrea Dennis, of Bloomfield, CT, examining dogs in the veterinary clinic's parking lot. If any are suspected of having the canine flu, that's where the initial exam is conducted. "I don't think I'm going overboard; that's just how contagious this virus is," says Dennis.

Unlike most forms of human flu, to which people have some immunity, few dogs have had any previous exposure and therefore have not developed any resistance.

It's thought that the canine influenza virus originated as a viral infection of horses, then jumped species, mutating to affect dogs. The virus was first identified as a never-before-seen dog flu at a Florida racetrack in 2004. With dogs' resistance at zero, it's no wonder the virus spread quickly. To date, dog flu has been identified in 38 states.

Dr. Michele Wright wanted to encourage use of the new canine flu vaccine in San Antonio, TX, two years ago as a preemptive measure, since dog flu had by then appeared in Houston. "I knew it was just a matter of time, but because people weren't seeing it, they just wouldn't do it," she recalls.

This year, canine flu has turned up in San Antonio big time. In one kennel, approximately 70 dogs were affected.

Once the virus has taken hold, there's not much a kennel, dog day care facility, or shelter can do except to bleach the premises like crazy and hope for the best.

While it's true that nearly 100 percent of exposed dogs get the virus, about 20 percent never get sick. This may sound good for those individual dogs but not the community. Even though these dogs feel fine and have no symptoms, they're shedding the virus for 48 hours to four days, which means they're highly contagious. And because they have no symptoms, no one has any idea they're spreading the bug.

In fact, even for dogs who do become ill, they're most contagious before their owners know they're sick. Of course, once the dogs begin to act sick, owners are told to keep them away from other dogs. Unfortunately, by then the cat - or the dog flu - is out of the bag.

"The symptoms include a cough, which is often deeper and harsher than kennel cough, and might even keep people up all night," Dennis says. "There may be a runny nose and a fever." The dogs generally feel crummy; they sleep more and may not eat with much gusto, very similar to how people respond to the flu.

Like strains of human flu, canine influenza can be deadly. Some dogs develop high fevers, infections and pneumonia. While only about five to eight percent succumb, statistics mean little if it's your dog that dies.

In the current outbreaks in Connecticut and San Antonio, so far, no deaths have been reported.

Once a dog is sick, veterinarians have attempted to treat canine flu using human anti-viral medications, but they don't seem to have much affect. Antibiotics are sometimes used to prevent secondary bacterial infections. Often, the best treatment is supportive care - the same as for people.

For those who operate kennels, grooming, boarding, or doggie day care facilities, canine flu could close down operations for some time.

Dennis says 80 percent of her clients now enthusiastically accept the vaccine (it's really two vaccines given over a couple of weeks). Similar to vaccines for human flu, the vaccine for canine flu doesn't always prevent the flu but does reduce symptoms.

The vaccine is recommended most often for social dogs, so those who visit grooming facilities, daycare, or might be boarded should be vaccinated every year. But if canine flu is occurring where you live, your vet may be more proactive, suggesting nearly all dogs who interact with other dogs be vaccinated, even if their only contact is sniffing each other while walking down the street.

"Canine influenza virus spreads so easily because all dogs are susceptible," says Dennis. "People travel with their dogs, and with all these rescue groups sending dogs all over the country, it's just a matter of time before the canine flu is identified in all 50 states."

No matter where you live, it's a good idea to ask your veterinarian about the dog flu vaccine.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Serivces

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    Dog/Cat Behavior Consultant; pet advocate; broadcaster, journalist

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