The Risk of Canine Influenza

By now, you have probably heard about the outbreak of canine influenza that is sweeping across the Midwest.  At the time this article was written, confirmed cases in Wisconsin,  Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have pet owners and veterinarians scrambling to prevent the spread of the airborne virus that can cause dogs to be sick with upper and lower respiratory symptoms.  Are we safe in the Mid-Atlantic?  What can we do to protect our dogs?  

This specific strain of canine influenza, H3N2, is a virus that seems to have avian origins from China and Asia.  This differs from other, similar outbreaks in the United States that occurred a decade ago where scores of racing greyhounds across the country contracted the H3N8 strain of canine influenza that originated from horses.  It was 2009 before the veterinary community had produced a vaccine to help decrease symptoms and incidence of the disease.  Awareness of canine flu, improved techniques to prevent the disease and the vaccine all helped quell the outbreak.   The virus persisted though, popping up here and there.  It was only a few years ago that several dogs became infected in Montgomery county Maryland, resulting in two deaths.  

So the canine influenza virus, regardless of the strain, is a force to be reckoned with.  However, as a veterinarian, while I have healthy respect for the virus, it is important to point out that I am not panicking, and nor should you.   

What should you be doing then?  

First, monitor your dog for symptoms.  Coughing is the hallmark sign of canine influenza.  Nasal discharge, ocular discharge, fever, lethargy and decreased appetite are all common.  There are several other common viral and bacterial pathogens that can result in these symptoms, but despite the cause, isolating a dog with these signs is important to protect other dogs.  If the signs are significant and persist, scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian is the best next step.  Make sure to let them know the symptoms and suspected infectious nature of the signs so that they can take steps to help isolate potentially infected dogs from healthy ones.  

Second, stay in touch.  Most veterinarians are on social media like Facebook or Twitter, and will use these resources to give you day to day updates on the status of an outbreak if one were to occur.  Your vet may recommend avoiding high traffic areas like dog parks.  As of late-April, there have been no cases anywhere near Capitol Hill and continuing life as normal is recommended.  

What about the canine influenza vaccine?  Much like the difficulties humans have producing a vaccine for the flu, getting the right protection can be difficult.  The only canine influenza vaccine that is currently on the market was produced for a different strain, and even then it doesn’t provide 100% immunity.  It is labeled to prevent the symptoms, severity and duration of shedding of the H3N8 strain.  It is not known how well, if at all, the vaccine will protect against the new H3N2 strain.  It is for this reason that most veterinarians consider the canine influenza vaccine a “lifestyle” vaccine.  This means the vaccine is only recommend if a patient is at risk (such as going to an area where there is an outbreak), or if it is required by a boarding facility or training facility.  It is also important to note that the vaccine requires a booster three weeks after the initial injection and only reaches maximum levels of immunity a few weeks later.

Predicting the spread of a disease can be difficult.  While humans cannot contract the canine version of the flu, the spread and behavior of the virus is similar.  It is thought that H3N2 can infect cats, but thus far this hasn’t been reported in the United States.  These similarities give us the experience to put ourselves in position to prevent dogs from contracting the flu.  Understanding the flu and educating the community about the best ways to keep your dog healthy will lead to the conclusion of this outbreak.  

 Chris Miller is a veterinarian at Atlas Vet on H Street, NE.