Canine Flu … and what to do!

Just like people, animals can get the flu (although a different strain), and just like people very few animals die from it.  Sometimes viruses jump from one species to another, which can be concerning depending on the severity of the disease it causes. Horse flu has been recognized for about 40 years.  In 2004, racing greyhounds in Florida were found to have an unusual respiratory illness. Investigators eventually found that the cause of the illness was the dog version of the horse flu (H3N8). There was much press surrounding the outbreak. However, most cases have been confined to shelters and kennels where large groups of dogs are housed together.  In 2009 a vaccine was developed against this new dog flu.

As we have experienced in people, flu vaccines are not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. This past April we were introduced to a new type of dog flu, H3N2, originally found in birds. This flu was originally discovered in 2004 in South Korean dogs but has just now made it the U.S.

The bottom line: the flu vaccine developed in 2009 is unlikely to offer any protection against the new H3N2 strain AND if there is any similarity to the human flu, there is something called antigenic shift. This is where a virus is completely changed and no longer recognized by the body’s immune system. Hence, a vaccine developed prior to the shift is unlikely to be effective after the shift.

Before getting your pet vaccinated against the flu educate yourself:

– Vaccines are not benign and the true benefit of the vaccine should outweigh the risk of the disease.

– The chance of dying from the flu is very low.

– Can you help your pet avoid exposure to the flu  (areas of crowding to include kennels/boarding facilities)

Most dogs that get the flu will have symptoms of coughing, runny nose and fever. Most cases are mild but a small number can become more serious due to secondary bacterial infection causing pneumonia and a smaller number of dogs can die. If your pet does show signs of coughing and decreased appetite, it is important that he/she be seen by a veterinarian. You should alert the hospital staff prior to bringing your pet into the animal hospital that your pet is coughing. Often, a broad spectrum antibiotic will be prescribed to help prevent secondary infections.

The recent outbreak in the Chicago area demonstrated that dogs suffering from the flu have less than a 0.2% chance of dying from it. This number is likely even lower as not all cases of flu were reported and not every pet with mild illness would have been brought to a veterinarian to be treated.

So before you panic about dog flu and find that most clinics have run out of vaccine, take a deep breath and remind yourself … it’s just the flu.

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