Dog Flu: What it Looks Like and What to Do?

Unless you have been living off the grid recently, you may have heard about the invasion of a new disease for your dog.  A particularly scary video showed a dog repeatedly jerking their head, almost like a seizure, that admonishes owners to watch out for the flu.  The real question is; what is dog flu, what can you do about it, and should you really be worried?  Read on to explore what we learned after thoroughly researching this topic!

What is Dog Flu?

Dog flu is what people call canine influenza virus (or CIV).  Just like with human influenza, dog flu comes in several varieties, is highly contagious, and mostly affects the lungs.

There are actually two varieties of dog flu in the United States, with both virus strains working in the same way.  These are referred to as H3N2, and H3N8, named after the specific proteins in each kind.  Once infected, the virus works in the dog lungs and respiratory tract.  The virus multiplies and attacks the surface of the lungs, leaving the pet open to secondary infection with illnesses such as pneumonia.  In the most severe cases, the virus affects breathing and can cause death in a very small number of those infected.

Where did it come from?

In 2004, racing greyhounds came down with a new variety of influenza which was later identified as H3N8.  Because the influenza virus has such a short generation, or the time the virus is first ‘born’ and is able to copy itself, changes in the virus happen very quickly.  That is why the influenza virus is able to evolve to infect species that previously were not affected by it.  In the greyhounds, scientists believe the virus H3N8 came from racing horses carrying equine flu.

The newly arrived H3N2 evolved from the avian flu in Asia, and in 2015 the virus was first seen stateside in a group of dogs in Chicago.  While H3N8 can now be found in all states, H3N2 is currently spreading through the major cities of the United States, though there are still areas that have not reported infection yet.  H3N2 is also the only strain of the two to be found in cats as well, though no deaths have been reported in infected felines.

What are the symptoms?

As both strains of dog flu affect the lungs, symptoms of infected dogs may mimic kennel cough to start with.  The incubation period, or time from first exposure to showing symptoms, is one to five days with H3N8 or two to eight days with H3N2.  An animal can pass the infection on if they are infected but not showing symptoms, and research shows that about 20% of animals infected will not show symptoms after exposure.

General symptoms of dog flu are coughing, runny nose, a fever (sometimes above 104°F), lethargy, eye and nasal discharge and not eating.  In mild cases, these symptoms will last ten to thirty days, during which they should be quarantined but do not require hospitalization.  In severe cases the dog may have difficulty breathing, cough blood, experience dehydration, and will need veterinary support to recover.  A secondary infection of pneumonia is possible in severe cases, as well.  It is found that less than 10% of dogs infected with dog flu die from the infection, so the likelihood of death is very low.

How does it spread?

The virus, in both strains, is passed from pet to pet in places with high populations of animals through fluids from infected animals.  Places like kennels, shelters, groomers, dog parks, dog daycare facilities and similar places will be prime places to pick up the infection.  Since it travels through the air when dogs cough or sneeze their saliva into the air, and not all dogs show symptoms, it is very difficult to prevent infection in places with a high population of pets.

The virus can survive on objects for up to two days, and on people for up to one day, so it is highly recommended that anyone who works with pets washes their hands, sanitizes dog toys and changes their clothes to prevent contamination.

What is the treatment?

Since the dog flu is a virus, your vet cannot treat the infection except to support their symptoms or secondary infections if they are severe.  

Vets can perform a blood test to diagnose dog flu, and if the veterinarian feels the dog is showing signs of the virus they may opt to perform the test to confirm.  If diagnosed, the vet will likely recommend rest and isolation, possibly with a course of antibiotics if the dog picks up a secondary infection like pneumonia.  Support care for severe infections will be carried out in the vet clinic to help manage symptoms of the virus.

There is a vaccine available for both strains of dog flu, and your vet can include this vaccine in your pet’s yearly checkup.  Dogs with the vaccine sometimes still get the infection, but typically have a less severe experience.  Speak with your veterinarian today to see if they would recommend this vaccine for your pets based on your lifestyle.

Should you be worried?

The new strain of dog flu, H3N2, has only recently been found in the U.S. and so is definitely something to be aware of.  Such a small percentage of infected dogs die from the infection, though, that it should not be used as a reason to change your routine.  Just like any disease or illness that your pets can get, you can take steps to prevent infection and to recognize symptoms early in order to get them the best care.  If you feel your pet is at a higher risk to be exposed to either strains of dog flu, talk with your veterinarian today about the dog flu vaccine.

Furry Footsteps LLC takes health safety and sanitization procedures seriously, and already has practices in place to prevent cross-contamination between dogs when on service visits.  If you are concerned about the dog flu or any other pet health problems, please speak with your pet professional or veterinarian today.

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