Dog flu: what it is and how to prevent it

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Dog flu: what it is and how to prevent it

Being sick is the worst, especially as an adult. Remember the days of lying on the couch with a warm washcloth from your mom and homemade soup from your dad? Sadly, that’s been replaced by unpaid sick days, Keurig soups, and Obamacare.

But at least when I’m sick, I know I’m sick and I have complete control over getting better (taking medicine and resting) or getting worse (drinking alcohol and staying out until 3 am). Dogs don’t have that luxury. As they get sick, they have no idea what’s happening to them, and they have no idea how to fix it. One day they’re all about eating breakfast and chewing bones, and the next day, they’re thinking my body hurts and I hate all food and socks.

Like humans, dogs get sick from colds and flus, and as a responsible dog owner, it’s important to take care of your pup by being knowledgeable about canine influenza and providing your own version of warm washcloths and homemade soups to help her get better.

What is canine influenza?

Canine influenza (CI) is a highly contagious respiratory infection in dogs that is caused by an influenza A virus. In the United States, canine influenza has been caused by two influenza strains: H3N8 in 2004 and H3N2 in 2015; the H3N8 strain is closely related to horse flu and is thought to have mutated to produce canine strain while the H3N2 strain is believed to have resulted from the direct transfer from birds to dogs.

Uh, soo... what, exactly, is canine influenza?

It’s dog flu. You know how when you have the flu, you’re tired and gross and have a terrible cough? Dogs feel the same way when they contract canine influenza — all they want to do is rest and watch The Price Is Right.

Since March 2015, thousands of dogs have contracted H3N2 canine influenza across the country. Two clinical forms have been seen in dogs infected with it: mild form and severe form. Dogs who suffer from the mild form of dog flu develop a soft, moist cough and nasal discharge; they may sneeze, be lethargic, and have a reduced appetite. Dogs with the severe form develop high fevers, cough up blood, and have clinical signs of pneumonia, including increased respiratory rates.

While the percentage of dogs infected with canine influenza is rarely fatal, it’s important to monitor your dog for signs of the flu. Contact your vet immediately if you think your dog has contracted it so your vet can evaluate your dog and get her the help she needs. Once you’re home with your dog, monitor her temperature (the normal range for a dog’s temperature should be between 101 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit), provide prescribed meds (if any), and make sure she has plenty of water, food, and rest.

Who can get dog flu?

Virtually all dogs – regardless of age or breed – lack immunity to the dog flu and are susceptible to contracting it, and it has been reported to infect cats, guinea pigs, and ferrets. While there is no evidence that dogs have transmitted the canine influenza to people, influenza viruses are constantly changing and it is possible for a virus to change so that it could infect humans and be spread amongst them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring it.

Where can my dog contract canine influenza?

Just like a child going to school and catching a cold your dog can catch the dog flu at the dog park or doggy day care. Since the dog flu virus spreads just like the human flu virus – through kisses, coughs, sneezes, and touching objects and surfaces that have already been contaminated – public doggy places like kennels, groomers, and pet stores are where your dog is most likely to contract it.

If you’ve recently rescued your dog, make sure to get him to the vet as soon as possible for a check up. Since dogs in shelters are kept in close quarters and sometimes have unknown or no prior vaccine history, they can readily spread disease unbeknownst to the staff.

How can I prevent my dog from getting dog flu?

Although virtually every dog can contract dog flu, there are some ways to make it less likely:

  1. Consider vaccinations. A vaccine is available and is similar to how the vaccine works in humans: it may not prevent your dog from getting the flu, but it may greatly diminish his symptoms and help him be less sick. For maximum efficiency, most vets suggest the two-shot vaccine be given three weeks apart and the booster shot be administered once a year. The flu shot vaccine is not essential (like the rabies shot). Although the flu rarely kills, within a week of getting the flu virus, about 80 percent of dogs become ill and contagious. Talk to your vet to determine whether vaccination is needed.

  2. Stay away from other dogs. The easiest way to keep your dog from getting the dog flu is by keeping her away from other dogs, especially unfamiliar ones at parks and groomers that she may not know and that may be sick.

  3. Wash your hands. If you spend time with other dogs – especially if you’re a vet technician or volunteer at a shelter – make sure you wash your hands or change your clothes before petting your dog. Although humans can’t contract it, they can carry the virus on their hands and clothing and pass it on to their dogs. To be extra careful, wear gloves and disinfect surfaces and containers that sick dogs may have touched.

  4. Get and stay educated. Around 2,000 dogs in 24 states – including Montana, Washington, and Illinois – have tested positive for the virus since last March, and it’s spreading quickly. Read the news to stay updated on where there’s an outbreak and how you can you keep your dog safe.

When it comes to keeping your dog safe and healthy, the easiest way to do so is by being a responsible owner and truly knowing and loving your dog. If he has an active energy level and healthy eating habits, you will know when something is off. By monitoring him and ensuring his vet visits and shots are current, you’ll always enjoy the time you spend with your dog – both in sickness and in health.

Image: Nina Helmer