The lowdown on dog flu

Margaret Ragi holds Curry, a 5-year-old bichon frise, at her home in Upper Saddle River, N.J., last month after Curry recovered from the canine influenza virus that has proved fatal for some dogs around the country.Stuart Ramson / AP

All the news of bird flu and the newly emerged canine flu is enough to make us want to lock the doors, close the windows and huddle in bed with our dogs, covers pulled over our heads.

But you and your pooch don't have to hole up at home all winter. Bird flu isn't a current threat to Americans and with some reasonable precautions, it’s still safe for your dog to continue his play dates at the park, stays at the boarding kennel or doggie daycare, and participation in dog sports such as agility, obedience and conformation.

First, some facts about canine flu. The virus, which is highly contagious, was first identified less than a year ago in racing greyhounds in Florida. That does not mean that racing greyhounds spread the virus to the rest of the dog population, says veterinarian Cynda Crawford, assistant scientist at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, who was one of the researchers who discovered and identified the virus.

“It only appears that way because the focus of my research was to determine what causes kennel cough outbreaks in racing greyhounds,” Crawford says. “Since I focused my efforts on that population of dogs, we stumbled across this flu virus in them just because we were looking at them. If my research had focused on kennel cough outbreaks in shelter dogs, we may have found it in pet dogs in the shelter first.”

To date, nearly 1,000 dogs in 39 states have been screened for canine influenza. Those dogs were tested because they showed signs that made their veterinarians suspect they might have canine flu: a cough, a cough with a runny nose, fever or pneumonia.

Of those dogs, approximately 25 percent have tested positive for canine influenza. That means that the remaining 75 percent were coughing for some other reason, Crawford says. Those other reasons could include canine cough, sometimes known as kennel cough, which is caused by the bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria, or parainfluenza (not the same as canine flu), a mild viral infection of the respiratory tract.

Dogs can be vaccinated for canine cough and parainfluenza, but those vaccinations are not effective against canine flu virus. A vaccine for canine flu is in the works, but veterinary vaccines usually take two to three years to develop, says Crawford.

Most cases are mild
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the bad news about canine flu is that because it’s a newly emerging disease, dogs haven’t been exposed to it and thus haven’t developed immunity. The good news is that the majority of dogs that become infected suffer only a mild form of the disease and recover within 10 to 30 days. A mild case of canine flu takes the form of a persistent soft, moist cough, sometimes accompanied by a runny nose.

A minority of dogs develop a more severe form of canine flu that’s characterized by a high fever (104 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit) and pneumonia, which can take hold because the virus damages the lining of the respiratory tract, weakening the respiratory tract’s natural barriers to bacterial infections. They may need intravenous fluids and an antibiotic to help fight off this secondary infection. While most dogs under the care of a veterinarian recover from flu-related pneumonia, about 5 percent do not.

“Unlike people, where we’re worried about the young, the old, and the immunosuppressed, the dogs that have developed pneumonia and even those that have died from pneumonia have been young, healthy dogs in the prime of their life,” Crawford says. “We’ve had 2-month-old puppies die and 9-year-old adults die, but the majority of the dogs are dogs you would not predict would be susceptible to secondary complications.”

Now that certainly sounds scary, but if you turn it around, you realize that 95 percent of the dogs that develop canine flu survive and most suffer only minor symptoms.

Keeping your dog healthy
And you can take steps to protect your dog from exposure. Wherever you take your dog, make sure that good infection-control practices are in effect, the AVMA recommends. Most of the dogs that have been diagnosed with canine flu were in animal shelters, boarding kennels, or pet stores: facilities in which dogs are found in high numbers.

“Canine flu is extremely contagious, and it’s spread through the air, so once one dog that has it starts coughing, it’s spraying virus to all the other dogs in the area,” Crawford says. “It’s very hard to control the spread unless you remove the coughing dogs.”

This is where you can take steps to minimize your dog’s exposure to canine flu. Ask your groomer, your boarding kennel, your doggie daycare center or the dog show superintendent about infection-control procedures. You want to know if there’s ever been a dog or dogs with a respiratory infection at their facility, how they isolate dogs that develop coughs while there, whether they have a veterinarian on call, and how they notify owners that their dogs have been exposed to other dogs that have developed a cough.

If you think you’ve come in contact with a dog that has canine flu, wash your hands, clothing, and any equipment or surfaces you may have touched. This will help ensure that you don’t pass on the virus to your dog.

On the flip side, don’t take your dog to the park, groomer, boarding kennel or dog event if he’s had a respiratory infection within the last week or two or if he’s been exposed to another dog that’s been sick in the past two weeks.

Don’t be afraid to adopt a racing greyhound or a dog from a shelter. Do pay attention to that dog’s condition. You want to choose a healthy dog, not one that’s coughing or has a runny nose.

No evidence people are at risk
And if you’ve been worried that you could catch the flu from your dog, well, you can rest easy. Crawford says there’s no evidence that this virus can infect people, horses, cats, ferrets or any other species.

“The canine virus is most closely related to the horse influenza virus,” she says. “We’ve had horse flu in this country for 40 years, and there has never been any evidence that people acquire influenza virus infection from hanging out with their horses who are infected with it. However, we’re not letting our guard down. We, including the Centers for Disease Control, the public health experts in this country, will be monitoring flu infections in dogs and any people who report to their physician that they think they have influenza and they think their dog has it too so they think they got it from their dog. We’ll be on the lookout.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.