Highly Contagious Dog Flu Seen In Region

Sick as a dog
A recent spate of local dog flu cases has veterinarians talking about the disease and how to help dog owners. (iStock)

Your dog just came from the kennel or a dog show, bringing home a cough, runny nose or even a fever.

It could be simple kennel cough, a catch-all name for bacterial and viral upper respiratory infections in canines.

But it could also be canine influenza, a relatively new illness caused by a virus closely related to an influenza that affects horses.

A recent spate of local cases has veterinarians talking about the disease and how to help dog owners.

Dionne Ferguson, DVM, DACVIM, practices at Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center in South Abington Township. While the center has seen no confirmed cases, they have received calls from referring veterinarians noting a recent increase, she said.

“The biggest concern is that it is a new virus — pretty much no dogs have antibodies,” Ferguson said

In January 2004, 22 racing greyhounds at a Florida racetrack developed a fever and cough, according to a 2005 paper in the peer-reviewed journal Science. Fourteen of those dogs began recovering after 10 to 14 days, but eight died from hemorrhages in the respiratory tract.

Scientists compared the virus’s DNA with other influenza viruses affecting pigs, birds and humans. The closest match was the H3N8 equine influenza virus, meaning the virus likely jumped from horses to canines.

From June to August that year, disease outbreaks spread to 14 race tracks in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia and Kansas. In 2005, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified it as a “newly emerging pathogen in the dog population.”

Because the virus is only a decade old in dogs, mothers don’t pass down antibodies to their pups, Ferguson said. Around 80 to 90 percent of those exposed will contract the virus, even if they don’t show symptoms, she said.

“It’s similar to flu in people where it’s the very young and the old that are most severely affected,” she said. 

About 5 percent of dogs who get sick will develop severe symptoms, which can include pneumonia, said Doug Ayers, VMD, who practices at Northeast Veterinary Referral Hospital in Plains Township. 

A kennel in New York recently brought a van full of six sick dogs to the hospital, he said. One had already died. Suspecting canine influenza, the hospital did not even let the dogs out of the van, he said.

Instead, they directed them to the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University, where the first isolation of the virus was done in cooperation with the University of Florida.

This “high morbidity, low mortality” virus “probably is popping up more than we know,” Ayers said. 

“It’s extremely contagious,” he said. “Dogs at risk are dogs that are going to be exposed to places where there are many animals.”

A vaccine is available, but as with the human influenza vaccine, it’s not 100 percent effective at preventing infection, Ferguson said.

Though they have not typically pushed vaccines, Northeast Veterinary Referral Hospital recently sent a fax around to local veterinary clinics “to at least start warning people that maybe it’s reasonable for those with a high exposure level to be vaccinated,” Ayers said.

bgibbons@timesshamrock.com, @bgibbonsTT