The internet and e-mail have helped spur rumors and growing worry among dog lovers of a newly discovered respiratory virus known as canine influenza, or the dog flu, that has killed dogs in numerous states.
While there is legitimate concern among veterinarians, kennel operators, and pet owners due to the lack of a vaccine and insufficient immunity to the new dog flu, Internet and hearsay tales of massive dog fatalities due to a canine super flu are just that – tales.
The disease is only deadly in rare cases — about 10 percent in puppies and old dogs, and approximately 5 to 8 percent in adult dogs, according to experts — and most dogs recover from the infection, but it is of legitimate concern because it appears to be spreading rapidly. Additionally, nearly 20 percent of infected canine influenza dogs do not display any clinical signs but can still spread the disease.
Approximately 80 percent of dogs exposed to the virus contract only a mild form of the disease, which mimics kennel cough, or canine bronchitis. Kennel Cough is rarely serious, and most dogs are regularly vaccinated for kennel cough with the bordetella vaccine once or twice a year. The bordetella vaccine does not work on the new canine respiratory disease, but development of a vaccine for canine flu is currently underway.
The majority of dog deaths due to canine influenza have occurred at greyhound tracks in Florida, Massachusetts, Arizona, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas and Iowa, but there have been documented cases in some kennels and shelters.
How Does It Spread?
Like most flu viruses, canine influenza can be spread by air, as well as by contact, and the populations of dogs most at risk are those in shelters, kennels, boarding operations, or similar environments where a large number of dogs are confined or housed in a relatively close space. At this time, there is no test for the flu that vets can administer.
Canine influenza can also spread in dog parks where leash-free dogs can socialize. Dog parks are a perfect environment for the spread of contagious diseases because dogs tend to share toys and water dishes, as well as the germs on or in those objects.
Symptoms to Watch For
The canine influenza virus most likely spreads among dogs in the same way the human flu virus spreads among people — typically by an infected individual sneezing or coughing on another.
The dog flu virus is too new for dogs to have developed a natural immunity to it, so any dog exposed will become infected, and about 80 percent of infected dogs will develop symptoms of the illness.
As a result, pet owners should watch their dogs carefully for any symptoms. Symptoms to watch for include constant coughing and sneezing, fever, and nasal discharge, as well as a sudden change in activity level, especially if your normally active dog begins exhibiting signs of lethargy.
Again, canine influenza often appears similar to kennel cough, but the new virus is different — it often causes a high fever and has more complications with pneumonia and congestion.
Testing for the Dog Flu
The typical test for diagnosing canine influenza involves detecting serum antibodies in the dog by taking a blood sample. The drawback to these blood tests is that they only detect the disease once the dog has started to produce sufficient antibodies to combat the virus, which can be several days after symptoms appear.
A new test introduced in early 2006 by researchers at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine analyzes RNA collected on a swab from the dog's throat to provide quick and accurate detection for the virus. The test is based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology and can provide results within 24 to 48 hours.
For the most accurate results, UC Davis recommends taking swab samplings within 72 hours after the dog exhibits symptoms of the illness. Additional information on UC Davis' new PCR test for canine influenza is available online.
Recommendations from Veterinarians
Vets stress that the new dog flu is no reason for pet owners to panic, but they do recommend taking precautions when your dog(s) is likely to come into contact with other dogs.
For example, if you take your dog to a dog park, consider bringing his or her own water dish and toys. And if you plan on boarding your dogs at a kennel or taking them to a doggie day care, survey the facility beforehand to make sure it's clean and well-ventilated, and that it requires all dogs to be up-to-date on all vaccines and shots.
Here are a few additional recommendations from vets:
Treatment and Recovery Tips
While there is still no vaccine available for the dog flu, the typical treatment for infected dogs is supportive care to help the dog's immune system fight off the disease, with antibiotics often prescribed for dealing with secondary bacterial infections.
Supportive care and proper diet — especially a natural, healthy dog food such as Flint River Ranch wellness pet foods — along with plenty of fluids and rest, can help your dog recover more quickly. It's important that your dog continues to eat regularly and drink lots of water; if she shows little desire to do one or the other, add some water to her food and mix the food up to give her a bit of added incentive to eat and drink.
In severe cases, dogs may require intravenous fluids and antibiotics to fight secondary infections. Your vet should be consulted in all dog flu cases and can provide additional tips for treatment and recovery.
How Widespread Is the Dog Flu?
It is believed that the new dog influenza virus is an H3N8 type of flu that may have mutated from an equine influenza strain. The dog flu was first diagnosed in greyhound race tracks in Florida, and there have been reported outbreaks in kennels, race tracks, and shelters all along the East Coast. The dog flu has not yet been reported on the West Coast.
The flu has continued to show up in Florida animal shelters, boarding facilities, and veterinary clinics, mostly in Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties, but it has also been reported at dog race tracks in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia and Kansas in 2004, as well as at race tracks in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, West Virginia, Kansas, Iowa, Colorado, Rhode Island and Massachusetts earlier this year.
Experts are predicting the number of states with documented infections will increase rapidly because veterinarians are just now becoming aware of the new virus and are starting to send samples for testing.
Should I Be Worried for Myself or My Family?
The virus has caught disease experts' attentions because it is a zoonotic disease that "jumped species," in this case from horses to dogs. Other viruses that have "jumped species" include the increasingly alarming Avian flu (the Bird Flu), the West Nile virus, and SARS, all of which are "super influenza" viruses that jumped from animals to humans.
While this has helped fuel rumors of canine influenza being a risk to humans (and more specifically, pet owners), there have been no reported cases of humans contracting canine influenza to date, and experts believe it highly unlikely (though possible) that the disease can be contracted by humans.