Tips for protecting your dogs from the canine flu

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Dec 29 2011

As we make our way through flu season, it is important to remember that our canine friends can get the flu just like people can. While there is no particular “flu season” for dogs, we do see a rise in infections over the holidays. This is because canine influenza is very contagious, and increases in grooming appointments and boarding over the holidays helps spread the disease.

The influenza virus has been detected in high numbers in New York, New Jersey and Colorado, and has been confirmed in 38 states. It was first seen in 2004 in racing Greyhounds. Genetic analysis of the virus shows that it is very closely related to an equine influenza, suggesting that it evolved from the equine virus and jumped from horses to dogs.

Luckily, although the disease is highly contagious, it has a low mortality rate. While the virus can persist in the environment for up to a week, it is easily killed with bleach. It is spread through contact with infected respiratory secretions, and its persistence makes it prime for spreading in close quarters, like boarding kennels.

The symptoms of canine influenza are very similar to those of kennel cough, and it can be almost impossible to differentiate the two without laboratory testing. The incubation period of the disease is two to five days, so by the time you pick your dog up from the kennel, he may already be showing signs. A persistent cough and nasal discharge are the most common signs, but severe cases are accompanied by fever and respiratory distress.

Though most cases are mild, occasionally the viral infection sets up for a bacterial infection and leads to pneumonia. These cases are considered severe and will likely require hospitalization. Mild cases, on the other hand, generally clear up on their own. Tender loving care is all that is required in those cases, although you will want to keep infected dogs away from other dogs to prevent spreading.

Dogs of any age can be affected, and because the virus is relatively new, there is little to no natural immunity in the canine population. Don’t worry, though – there are no cases of transmission to humans. There is a canine influenza vaccine available at some veterinarians, though it’s not a core vaccine (those recommended for all dogs that protect against diseases that are serious or potentially fatal). Speak to your veterinarian to determine if your dog is at a higher risk than most and can benefit from vaccination.