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Reports of an outbreak of dog flu can be scary, and they seem to come more frequently these days, especially during the fall and winter. Certain strains are highly contagious among cats and dogs, and as a loving pet parent, you want to be careful. Fortunately, there are many steps that dog owners can take to keep dogs safe and sound during an outbreak. Here’s everything you need to know about canine influenza, otherwise known as the dog flu.
What is Canine Influenza?
The dog flu is a highly contagious respiratory disease in dogs that usually presents itself as a hacking cough. Here are other important facts about the history and evolution of this infection:
- In the US, the two virus strains responsible for most cases are H3N2 and H3N8.
- Scientists think H3N2 jumped species from birds to dogs. This virus strain was first detected in South Korea in 2007 and later found in China, Thailand, and elsewhere. It made its way from Asia in 2015 and first showed up in dog populations in Chicago.
- The H3N8 strain jumped species in 2004 when an outbreak of equine influenza affecting racehorses in Florida moved on to affect racing greyhounds in the same state. Since then, this strain has been found across the United States.
How is Dog Flu Transmitted?
Unfortunately, canine influenza is pretty darn easy to spread from one dog to another. Flu viruses can live on contaminated surfaces for up to 48 hours, for one thing. For another, symptoms may not appear in an infected dog for up to eight days, causing unintended exposure.
The most common ways to spread the canine flue include:
- By direct contact with infected dogs—such as petting—and by the aerosol spread of respiratory secretions generated by coughing and sneezing.
- Via contaminated objects like crates, food and water bowls, collars and leashes, and the skin and clothing of people handling infected dogs.
And while vaccination helps, it’s not a perfect solution. Flu viruses are expert mutators. That’s why the flu shot for humans is different every year. That’s also why the flu shot may not catch every flu virus out there.
Who is at Risk for Dog Flu?
Because both strains of the flu virus are relatively new to the United States and Canada, especially the H3N2 virus, many pet dogs here don’t yet have natural immunity.
- Dogs of any age and breed are susceptible to this infection, but dogs who are especially young or old are most likely to contract it.
- Cats can also carry and transmit most strains of canine flu.
- The canine flu virus strains do not cause human infections.
Dog Flu Symptoms
Some of these symptoms are also related to kennel cough or other ailments. Gauging animal health can be tricky because of course, your dog can’t talk to you! However, if your dog experiences these symptoms in combination, the flu virus is a likely suspect.
- A loud or “honking” cough
- Loss of appetite
- Variable fever
- A runny nose with clear nasal discharge
- Eye discharge that progresses from clear liquid to thick, yellowish-green mucus
- Rapid or difficulty breathing
- Lethargy/lack of energy
How Can I Prevent the Canine Influenza Virus from Spreading?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer up the following precautions for pet owners during an outbreak of canine flu, though they’re also good, common-sense precautions to take year-round. (Pro tip: many of the preventative measures you’d take to avoid catching the human flu also apply to dog populations.)
- Wash your hands, clothes, and dog belongings with soap and water.
- Note that the virus can stay on your hands and clothes for up to 24 hours, so it’s important to wash your hands before and after petting animals.
- Pay attention to alerts in your area. If there is an outbreak of dog flu, be sure to take measures to protect your dog. For instance, avoiding communal water sources at the dog park is one preventative step. In fact, skipping the dog park altogether might be a good idea, especially for vulnerable dogs, until an outbreak passes.
- Be aware of other dogs. If a dog appears to be coughing or visibly ill, prevent your dog from approaching him or her.
Is there a Dog Flu Shot?
There is a vaccine for both strains of dog flu available. Some facilities such as doggy daycares, dog hotels, and other boarding facilities may require the vaccination. Many vets also recommend it for dogs who frequently spend time in an enclosed environment with a significant amount of other dogs, such as a kennel, or for dogs that have health conditions that can make a dog flu episode more dangerous.
Whether or not to have your dog vaccinated for the flu is, of course, between you and your vet. They can best inform you about whether your dog is a good candidate for the canine influenza vaccine.
What Do I Do If I Think My Dog Has Canine Influenza?
While infected dogs typically recover well, a flu episode can be harder on puppies and senior dogs, as well as dogs with respiratory issues of any kind. Supportive care is often sufficient for otherwise healthy dogs, but be sure to consult your vet, regardless. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) notes that secondary bacterial infections can also follow a flu episode, such as pneumonia. Any pet dogs that don’t recover within two weeks from initial flu symptoms should certainly be seen by a vet.
- Contact your vet or the nearest animal hospital immediately with any questions or concerns about symptoms your dog is showing.
- If you make a vet appointment, you may be asked to avoid the waiting room or enter through a separate door to avoid spreading the virus.
- Keep your dog separate from other animals, including cats, for 4 weeks. That means training courses, the dog park, your dog-friendly office, and anywhere your dog might encounter other dogs en masse.
- If your dog is infected, practice good biosecurity, such as:
- Wash hands thoroughly after touching your sick animal and before touching any other pets in your household.
- Wash food and water dishes at least daily in hot water with plenty of soap.
- Clean bedding, towels, and even your clothes if exposed to the virus (ie: coughed on, slobbered on) with a through antiviral cleaner like bleach or Pinesol.
What if it’s not the flu? Here’s the 411 on dog colds, kennel cough, and other flu-like illnesses that can affect our pets.
The Good News
With the correct diagnosis, the vast majority of dogs will recover within two weeks without any further health complications. Keep an eye out for symptoms, take basic precautions, and call your vet with any questions. You’ll rest assured you’re taking great care of your best friend.
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