With a brutal flu season upon us, 2018 has started out not with a bang, but a sneeze and a cough — for both pets and their human counterparts.
Outbreaks of canine influenza (CI), also known as dog flu, have been reported on both coasts, with confirmed cases in states such as Florida, Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado, Washington and California. Dog flu is a highly contagious viral infection that, despite its name, can affect both dogs and cats, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) — which is why it’s so important for pet owners to know what to look out for this winter.
The virus is passed from animal to animal through “respiratory secretions,” Dr. John Gicking of BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa, Florida, told The Dodo. Dogs can spread the virus through simply “barking, coughing and sneezing,” Gicking said. “Contaminated objects, such as water bowls, toys, food, clothing, shoes and leashes can also harbor the virus and cause transmission.”
This makes areas where pets congregate, such as doggy day cares, kennels and dog parks, hot spots for disease transmission.
But just because your pet has been exposed to a strain of the virus doesn’t mean he will show symptoms, Gicking noted. Eighty percent of dogs exposed to the virus will develop signs of the disease within one to five days, while the remaining 20 percent will show no symptoms whatsoever. If your dog went to the park a week ago and seems as spry as ever, you’re probably in the clear.
However, like with the human flu, a dog who is not symptomatic can still pass the virus to other animals. Humans who have been in contact with an infected animal can also unknowingly spread the virus, as it can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours, on clothing for 24 hours, and 12 hours on hands, the AVMA explains. If your dog gets the sniffles, take precautions to wash your clothes with warm water and disinfect your hands and any surfaces, Gicking advised, to keep the outbreak in check.
Before you’re tempted to cancel all puppy playdates for the foreseeable future, dog flu has a very low mortality rate of less than 10 percent, and most pups will only contract a mild version.
Here’s what you need to know to keep your pets safe:
In its mild form, canine influenza can resemble a kennel cough-type syndrome, where dogs could come down with a soft cough that can last up to a month. Your pup may also seem lethargic or down, and have increased eye and nasal discharge and sneezing.
In a more severe form, dogs can have a high fever, develop pneumonia and have trouble breathing, which may cause them to become dependent on supplemental oxygen, Gicking explained.
Cats suffer from similar upper respiratory disease symptoms, such as nasal discharge, congestion and lethargy.
If you suspect your dog or cat may have come down with the flu, contact the family veterinarian for guidance, Gicking recommended. Avoid rushing your pup to the vet’s office, as this could infect other dogs in the waiting room, and your veterinarian may want to take special precautions when meeting you. Your vet can confirm the virus by running a series of tests. “Usually there is a specific test that looks for the virus itself in the animal’s respiratory secretions, such as nasal swabs — that’s how there’s a confirmed diagnosis,” Gicking said. “There’s also suspicion based upon clinical signs.”
There is no cure for dog flu, so keeping your pets hydrated, well-fed and comfortable while they recover is most important. Veterinarians will offer support care, such as providing medicine should the animal experience nausea, administering fluids and prescribing antibiotics to treat any secondary bacterial infections that may develop. Most dogs recover within two to three weeks, so be patient with your pup and allow him to convalesce in peace.
In order to not pass on the virus, dogs should be kept separate from susceptible animals for three to four weeks after recovery. That means not even sniffing another pup on the street, Gicking explained.
There are two different strains of CI currently affecting the U.S. pet population — H3N8, first identified in 2004, and the newer H3N2, first spotted in 2015. While there are vaccines available for both, they are not cross-protective, meaning each vaccine only protects against one virus. No vaccine can 100 percent guarantee your pet won’t get the flu, as the virus can change and mutate, or your pet’s immune system could be too slow to react before exposure, Gicking explained.
“In general, vaccines cause mild side effects such as lethargy and malaise but are considered safe,” Gicking stated — so there’s no reason not to vaccinate your dog if he is at risk of exposure. A vaccine isn’t just for your pet — it can protect all his friends, too.