Flu season is well underway in Massachusetts—and with it the body aches, congestion, fatigue and other ills associated with our collective seasonal misery. Now veterinarians at the MSPCA’s Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston are concerned about a second category of potential victims: dogs.
There is zero risk of dogs contracting human flu—nor is there a canine flu epidemic underway in Massachusetts. However, several states, including Illinois, Georgia and Kentucky, are racking up hundreds of positive canine flu tests and that has the veterinary community concerned.
“This flu season has been severe for humans and that’s why there is so much attention on flu right now,” said Dr. Virginia Sinnott of Angell Animal Medical Center. “And even though our dogs are not at risk for human flu, we should be taking any measures we can to protect them from the canine version of the virus, which is as miserable for them as the human version is for us.”
Just like the human influenza virus, dog flu is extremely contagious. This particular strain—H3N2—can remain contagious for up to 24 days following infection. “By contrast, dogs suffering with the more common strain of flu [H3N8] remain contagious for only about a week,” said Dr. Sinnott.
Since March 2015, when this more contagious strain of canine flu was first spotted in the U.S., veterinarians have treated dogs in 46 states, including Massachusetts, underscoring the need for vigilance.
“Dog flu is made all the more common because dogs frequently greet each other nose-to-nose, making even casual contact risky for transmission,” said Dr. Sinnott. “For dogs who come down with the flu, the symptoms can include severe coughing, fatigue, labored breathing and lack of appetite.”
Dr. Sinnott recommends that dogs experiencing any of these symptoms immediately be evaluated by their veterinarian.
Assessing the Risk
Dog flu outbreaks can happen any time of year—not necessarily just in wintertime—which is typically peak season for human flu outbreaks. Even so, there are risk factors associated with the season that Dr. Sinnott recommends pet owners be mindful of, namely: kenneling.
“We’ve had a really cold winter and Massachusetts families understandably will be flying to warmer climes in droves during the February school vacation week—and in many cases their pet dog will be kenneled for the time that they’re away,” she said.
Prevention: Reducing the Odds that Fido Falls Sick
Dr. Sinnott stresses tried and true prevention measures to reduce the risk of our dogs falling sick, in particular heeding the following guidelines:
1) If traveling with dogs to any of the states that have experienced an outbreak (including Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida and California), steer clear of all dog parks, veterinary hospitals (save for emergency treatment) or other areas in which dogs assemble. Follow Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s real-time canine flu tracker for updates on positive tests around the country.
2) Consider having your dog vaccinated against the flu—but do not mistake vaccination as a sure-fire preventative as there are many different strains and, just like with the human flu vaccine, it is not effective 100 percent of the time. Dr. Sinnott estimates that the vaccine is about 60 percent effective.
3) Know the primary signs of canine flu which generally include coughing, runny nose, decreased activity, decreased appetite, and generally seeming unwell. If any of these symptoms are present, call your veterinarian immediately.
4) If your dog is sick, seek treatment at your veterinarian’s office or Angell—but inform staff upon arrival if you suspect flu, and keep well clear of all other dogs in the waiting area(s).
Dr. Sinnott recommends travelers be especially diligent when it comes to boarding dogs. “We would recommend booking dogs into kennels that have established vaccination and cleaning protocols and are willing to share those details with pet owners, as that significantly reduces the risk of an outbreak.”
Canine flu is not fatal in most cases, nor does it pose a threat to humans, cats or other pets. However, the odds of dogs contracting the illness after exposure are nearly 100 percent. And the experience is a miserable one.
“Dogs are sick on average for 10 to 20 days and it’s extremely uncomfortable for them—on par with how we feel when we get the flu. No one wants to see their pet suffer through this. While we should not panic, we should do all we can to keep our dogs from contracting the illness.”